Honored (Conclusion)

 

Shots continued to echo through the woods from the distant blinds in the heart of The Tupe. Inch by inch, foot by foot, the world was being revealed. But still we waited. In every direction the sounds of calling mallards, beating wings and splashing, unafraid ducks encompassed us.

“Just watch.” Howard whispered. “Don’t move, just watch.”

With our heads tucked to our chests Chris, Howard and I glanced around and at the scene unfolding across the flooded flat. I could feel my cheeks taught and aching for the grin I wore. The same broad smile was one the other human faces whenever my minute movements offered me a glimpse of Chris and Howard.

A mallard hen drifted within inches of Chris’s legs and let loose a commanding but contented call.

I heard a snort from my friend as he strained to hold back his laughter. Then a giggling fit spread to everyone in our party. Guns in hand, surrounded by ducks, we stood in the center of a spectacle that continued to unfold around us. We snickered like children in church, trying to suppress our joy lest we be rebuked by our elders, or in that case the wild waterfowl that were conducting their own Sunday service around us.

 

As the sound of wing beats slowly began to diminish and the louder calling of the ducks settled into a hum of happy feeding sounds my anticipation for order to shoot overtook my need to laugh. I glanced at Chris and Chris and Howard, wildly cutting my eyes and arching my eyebrows trying to convey my eagerness to cut loose into the mass of mallards that floated on the stained waters wherever I looked.

Chris’ face too was turned toward our hero. Surely, he was not cruel enough to make us wait any longer? But the shake of his head told us our torture was not over.

“Flush em, but don’t shoot.” He whispered. The shock and disappointment that must have been clear on our face requiring him to reply. “Just trust me.” We did.

 

With a half step from our hide, all three of us turned our faces up to take in the full picture around us. For a split second the bird seemed to pay us no mind. Then heads began to rise, necks elongated, and the now nervous birds changed the tone of their calling, turning head first into the light wind that blew from our back.

 

“GET ON!”  Howard shouted. And the world around us exploded.

 

Wings slapped the water and alarmed quacks blared from every direction. Standing in the center of the mallard maelstrom we watched, turning in our tracks as wave after wave of ducks leapt into the sky. Water from their departure showered down around and onto us. The wind of wings could be heard and felt from every compass point. In miraculous moments they pin oak flats emptied of ducks.

“Holy CRAP!”

“Wow!”

Chris and I uttered a string of astonishments, some sprinkled with profanity we were only allowed to use at the hunting camp.

 

“What a sight!” Howard added, his eyes squinted by his smile, his head shaking side to side.

“They’ll be back.” He said. “Let’s ease back up into that tree-top and get ready”

 

We reclaimed our previous places. Chris and I still trembling with excitement, chattering to each other about what we had seen.

From what we could now tell was my father’s blind a rolling volley of shots reported the route at some of the departing ducks had taken. Then other ollies followed from several points in the distance. The staccato pops of single shots telling us the birds had not all escaped unharmed, as the hunters finished off cripples.

 

I was preparing to ask Howard if we might should have shot when I saw his small black call touch his lips and heard the first sharps notes of his greeting call float up through the timber. Dropping my head to my chest and peer out from under the bill of my cap I caught a quick glimpse of the group of mallards I assumed he was working. My hands tightened on the stock of my gun. My finger hovered over the safety.

 

Watching from the corner of my eyes I tried to comprehend the flocks’ motions and Howard quacked, coaxed and called to the gabbling group. The muddy water at my feet offered a poor reflection as I strained to keep up wit the birds by looking down instead of up, as my father and his friends had taught me. The WHOOSH of wings told me the birds were low, and close, but for the life of me I could not figure out where they were.

 

Remembering another lesson from my father, I tilted my head to the side and focused on Howard’s face. He would have an eye the birds, and by watching him I would be able to get an idea of their approach.

 

The chatter of the working birds grew nearer and a lone hen from the flock took up a measured call, quacking rhythmically as she led her troop around and around over the opening that had been created when our natural blind and toppled to the earth.

 

The little black call took on a more urgent sound as the lead hen’s voice began to fade into the distance. Longer notes rang from Howards lungs and I watched as he relaxed from his hunker and pleaded with the departing flock.

Turning to face where Howard was looking I saw the mallards break through the gray branch and drift down to the water, landing well out of range but in clear sight.

 

Before I could ask what went wrong, Howard was gathering his gear and stepping out from the limbs of the fallen oak.

 

“Get your gear and follow me.” He said. Chris and I followed without question. “Stuff that decoy bag in the hollow of that tree.” He continued, pointing to a large hackberry tree a short distance from the upturned root ball of the old oak.

Every time I opened my mouth to enquire about our operation Howard answered my question before I could utter a sound.

 

“They didn’t like something.”

“We need to back up off this hole just a bit.”

“Pick out a good size tree on either side of me and stay behind it.”

 

Chris and I followed his instructions without question.  We hadn’t gotten more than ten yards from our pervious hide when a single drake mallard fluttered down through the opening and landed among the handful of decoys Chris had deployed in the dark.

The drake barely hit the water before he was up and gone again.

 

“That’s what we want!” Howard said as Chris and I selected our trees and sought out places where we could stash or blind bags. Howard rummaged through his pockets and withdrew a good-sized screw bent at nighty degrees a few inches below its head.  Scraping away the deeply grooved outer bark he began twisting the bent hunk of metal into the tree, then hung his bag and gun from the hand fashioned hook.

 

“You boys did well.” He said, leaning one shoulder against the tree where he stood. “You kept your faces down and didn’t move.”

 

“Thank you” we replied with a sheepish pride.

“When the next bunch starts working,” he continued. “watch me close. If I kick the water, yall do the same. But when I stop, you stop. Understood?”

Chris and I nodded our answer and again before our voices could offer any of the dozens of questions we were eager to ask, Howard raised his call to his lips and purred the D-2 into action.

 

Without so much as a single circle the five mallards dropped their left wings, pirouetted in the sky and began back peddling down through the opening in front of us. Their orange feet extended, they beat the air hard to control their decent and turned face towards us. With the lead duck just inches from the surface Howard called the shot.

“Take ‘em!”

 

Three guns ripped the air and three drakes continued to the water unaided by their wings while the hens made their escape flying within feet of our heads. Though the two face-down drakes could be seen to swim in lazy circles and the one belly up kicked hopelessly at the cool air above him, it was clean none of the three required a finishing shot.

 

“Way to go boys!” Howard congratulated us. “That’s how we want to shoot em.”

 

Chris was easing out from beside his tree to retrieve the downed birds, but Howard assured him they would neither escape or bother future flocks. Backing up to his station Chris withdrew two purple shells from his pocket and slid it into the battered sixteen gauge he carried. His action reminded me of my own need to reload and I found two yellow shells in my pocket and slipped them into my gun. Howard only required one shell to reload.

 

The next visitors to grace our presence was a pair of mallards. The hen quacking loudly as they dropped below the upper branches.

 

They swung wide once below the trees, moving to my left as they prepared to land.

 

“Shoot that drake!” Howard called as I raised my gun to my shoulder.

 

At the sound of Howards voice the greenhead made an acrobatic move to adjust his landing, placing a cluster of brush between his outstretched neck and my unsteady barrel. The limbs between us splintered and the drake dug his wings hard into the air as he shifted landing to escape. Twice more my twenty gauge chased the fleeing bird, but all that fell to disturb the waters at my feet were twigs, leaves and the wadding from my shots.

 

Crestfallen, I turned an apologetic face towards hunting companions. Chris was shaking his head, but Howard just gave a quick gin and told me to load back up.

 

Shoving shells back into my gun I tried to make excuses for my misses. Blaming trees limbs and poor footing and anything else my mind could conjure. But the truth was, I had just flat out missed.

 

“Won’t say it was a tough shot.” Howard replied. “But I can’t say I haven’t missed easier ones myself.” His words gave me back some small degree of dignity.

“But let’s not have a repeat performance.” Chris chimed in from his station. And Howard laughed as hard as I think I had ever heard him laugh.

I took the good-natured ribbing in stride, as much as I could, though secretly hoping my friend would show an equally pathetic display of marksmanship before the day was done. If not, I could always remind him of his recent sockless encounter with the whitetail of the woods. Chris’ deer hunting was rife with ammunition for a good taunting.

 

As we settled back into the hunt a respectable flight of mallards drifted over the trees, low and looking for company. Howard set to work on his call and the dozen or more birds made a lazy circuit of the flats, slowly losing altitude but clearly in no rush to select their final destination.

 

We watched as best we could as Howard expertly worked the meandering birds. When his left foot moved to stir the water, we mimicked his movements. If the birds were tail to us, and a safe distance away, he kicked the water with enough vigor to send splashes and showers of droplets falling around his tree. If the birds worked close his leg moved more delicately, and if they were directly overhead he remained still.

The flock made innumerable rounds and half-hearted faints at dropping through the trees. Each time, slowly abandoning their glide path and lifting above the opening to make another low circle over our decoys.

“This is it.” Howard whispered as the flight made another banking turn. I couldn’t see anything different in their manner from the previous several approaches, but as Howard’s hand moved slowly towards his gun, I took him for his word and braced myself against the self-doubt that still lingered from my earlier misses.

Sure enough the birds made a full commitment, stretching out their bright feet and pushing back against their descent.  They dropped into the upper reaches of the hole and I could see Howard slowly start to lift his gun form the hook.

 

“BOOM!” a shot plowed through woods and the flight reversed their path amid frantic calls. Leaving before I knew what happened.

 

The shot was too close to be any of the other members of our camp and in a direction that made it unlikely to be another duck hunter. It was come from the area of the woods where the highest ground escaped the winter waters except in years of floods.

 

“Damnit” Howard muttered under his breath, releasing the hold on his gun, dropping hi calls to his chest and shaking his head.

 

“I hope to all hell they killed that deer!” he said, stuffing his hands into his pockets and turning his face to the sky in search of another opportunity.

 

We all mumbled, cursed ad shook our heads as we waited for the next sighting. Soon it became obvious we had entered a typical early morning lull. A quick glance at my watch marked the time as only shortly past full sunrise and was surprised by the earliness of the hour.

 

“What was it Cedric always said when that happened?” Howard asked as we waited.

 

Doing me best to imitate my father’s longtime hunting partner and dearest friend, Cedric Fiberman, I straighten up and looked towards the heavens.

“A most fortuitous turn of events!” I spoke to the spirit of the man whose company would no longer grace our gatherings.

We all laughed and noticed Howard wipe tear from his eyes. Whether born of joy or sorrow I cannot say, but I imagine it was a mix of both.

 

We passed the time telling a few stories of Cedric. Laughing at he well worn memories of the small man who’s memory filled every corner of the wildlands we hunted. In our recollections we lost track of time. But when the soft call of a drake mallard shocked us back into the moment the sun had risen enough to cast an iridescent glimmer of the lone mallard’s head as he crossed the sky over the decoys.

 

Howard took to his call and on the second pass the drake was joined by another trio of mallards. The birds made another swing and their number grew again, now a solid twenty or more claimed the blue heavens above us.

 

In another wide circle their numbers tripled. Then other flights fell under the spell and before long several different groups were circling and gliding over the tall oaks. The birds were very vocal and as their number grew Howard’s calling became more mellow. Alternating between crisp but soft quacks and muttering chatters he kept the flights focused on our hole. We joined him as he kept the water below the trees stirring and the swirl of ducks continued to grow above us.

 

“Give em a little chatter.” Howard alerted us with a hoarse whisper.

Without thinking Chris and I abandoned my father’s stern instruction from the previous night to keep our calls in our coats. We fumbled out the old wooden double reeds we both blew and tentatively added our voices to the calling.

 

The birds made three more passes before melding into one solid flock. Howard kept up the bulk of the calling while Chris and I maintained a constant chatter.

Seeing something in the attitude of the birds Howard issued another command.

 

“That’s enough, get ready.” He said maintaining a slow string of quacks as the leading squadron applied their brakes and began whiffling down through the trees.

 

The first dozen or more of the birds hit the water but countless more mallards were descending through the opening and others above were banking on slow wings to join the rain of waterfowl.

 

With the sun now well above the trees the colorful heads of the drakes and the bright orange feet of all the fluttering flock brought sharp contrast to the brown and gray world of the flooded timber.

 

I couldn’t guess how many birds landed, or how many were still back peddling over their brethren when Howard called the shot. But I remember that as far back as I could see ducks were still lining up to fall among our decoys.

The first blast sent only two drakes crashing to the water. The next round only two more. The last few shots to punctuate the event went safely into nothing and again the world around us returned to silence.

“Shoot that cripple!” I heard Howard bark. Chris and I both hastily reloaded and in unison raked the escaping drake with converging fire that ended his attempted exodus.

 

“What happened?” Chris asked. “How did we only kill four?”

 

I knew better than to try to claim the two birds I felt certain I had killed. So I kept my mouth shut on that front, asking instead as I glanced around if he was sure it was only four.

 

“Hell boys. Every duck I picked out was falling before I could pull the trigger!” Howard laughed. “Then anything I swung to next was a hen. If it wasn’t for that one that tried to escape on my side I wouldn’t have cut a feather!”

 

I watched as Howard slipped a single shell into his gun. Sure enough he had only fired once. The lack of more dead mallards rested solely on the shoulders of myself and my friend.

 

“That puts us at seven.” Howard stated mate-of-factly. “Good job picking drakes.”

 

Before the last ripples had faded from the falling ducks another group of birds make a low faint at the opening and again we fell in behind Howard’s calling, adding our now confident chatter to the mix.

For a reason known only to the ducks themselves the group decided to drop in from behind us, falling through the trees with the wind and faster than I had ever seen mallards try to land. They were on us before we knew what was happening and Howards was scrambling for his gun before Chris and I had a chance to turn to face the birds.

“Take em!” Howard called, as Chris and I fumbled and fussed to get turned around.

 

Howard’s A-5 sounded once and two greenheads folded, stone dead, splashing water onto Howard and nearly striking him as he turned sideways to the feathered projectiles.

 

The hunt as done. Reductions in the mallard population had shortened our seasons and reduced our bag limits, but it had done nothing to dampen the spirits of the men of The Tupe. If the mallards would still come they would hunt them, and that day we could not have asked for a more perfect hunt.

 

After gathering our birds, we stood for a long while watching birds work the flats. Howard never touched his call again that day. Instead he told us to just watch the show. While the birds worked he pointed out slight changes in the way they flew, trying to show us some of the things he looked for when working birds.

We tried see what he saw and pretended to understand the lifetime of knowledge he offered us there among those towering trees. Maybe we retained s few of his lessons, but mostly we just sat in awe of him, watching him watch the ducks. Listening to his voice as he whispered his lessons and color commentary explaining the unfathomable ballet the winter winds had set in motion over our heads and all around us.

Before we left he told us leave the decoys stashed in the old hollow tree.

 

“You boys need to bring Lawyer Ramsey with you in the morning and call a few ducks in for him.” He explained, referring to my father by one of his many nicknames. “I appreciate yall putting me on some ducks.”

 

I do not think I ever felt so proud in my life. I knew even without our limited calling, Howard would have landed every duck we had shot, but it was the greatest compliment I could have imagined. To this day I mark that morning as true entry into the brotherhood of waterfowlers, and nothing before or since has changed my estimation of that milestone.

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Honored (Part 3)

 

The dim headlights of the Hustler revealed our stopping point, white blazes of paint at shoulder height on the bark of an over-cup oak that marked the end of our camp’s property.

 

When the engine sputtered to a steaming stop we sat for a long moment, letting silence of predawn return to the world around us. The eerie call of wood ducks was the first sound break the newborn quiet, followed closely by the hoot of an owl.

 

Sitting in silence as our warm breath fogged the close dark world before us we listened as more wood ducks took up the dim symphony that sung of the coming sunrise. But when the first sharp notes of a mallard barked through the timber every man and boy quickly set into motion.

 

Guns were uncased, blind bags grabbed and the bag of far too many decoys were hauled down from the roof of rack of the 6-wheeler.

 

“I’ll get those.” Howard spoke into the darkness. But before he could reach to shoulder the burden Chris had the bulky bag secured to his back. I rummaged through my blind bag and withdrew a battered flashlight. The frail beam of the light shrank our world to within its feeble reach and with glance at the small round compass pinned to my coat I headed toward the sound of the waking waterfowl and my hopes for the day’s hunt.

 

 

The day before the walk had seemed simple. The ridge that stood between us and the pin oak flat consisted of large trees, spaced well apart by natures design. But in the darkness, now burdened with our gear, a forest of vines, saplings and briars seemed to have sprouted overnight. More than once we were forced to turn from my northerly track or pause to free Chris and the decoys from the ensnaring vines and thorns of the woods.

 

Shooting light was still a safe distance away but with every turn and tangle I worried that we would be rushed in getting our decoys deployed and ourselves ready when before the first echoing shots on some distant slough signaled legal shooting time.

 

Soon enough though the slight slope of the ridge could be felt under our feet and within a few strides our party was standing at the edge of the shallow flats that just the day before had been teeming with mallard.

 

We paused again to listen as a startled wood duck alerted her companions of a nearing threat and launched noisily into the darkness. More of her kin could be heard in every direction but the droning buzz of feeding mallards that had drawn me to their location before was not to be heard. Howard told me to douse my light and when our eyes had adjusted it was evident that the world around us was slowly filling with light.

 

“Where are we going to set up?” Howard asked, a slight edge of anticipation in his voice.

 

“There is a big fallen tree about half way to the Water Ash where the flat is split in half.” I said, raising my flashlight and preparing to search out my intended destination. Howard eased his hand through the darkness, placing it on my wrist.

 

“Let’s just ease out towards that area. We’ll find it when the light comes up a bit more.”

 

And with that he eased into the shallow waters with me and Chris close behind.

 

As we waded wood ducks fussed and flushed around us in the dark, but there was not a sound from the mallards I had expected to be waiting on our arrival. When the water reached our thighs, Chris unshouldered the decoys and the rumble of the unsettled blocks sent several set of wings to light. As the escaping birds broke into the pale eastern sky the lead hen of the dozen or more mallards that were rapidly departing called down through the trees. It wasn’t the throngs of birds I had scouted out, but it began to ease my worries none the less.

 

The large fallen tree I had spotted the day before materialized out of the darkness. Its massive turn and root ball partially submerged, its thick branches still clinging to their leave stretching out beyond our sight.

“Good looking spot.” Howard said as we began placing our bags and guns on the trunk and among the limbs.

“They were all around it yesterday.” I said. Beaming unseen with pride. “Here and all along the flat to the east and west.”

Chris had opened the decoy bag and was unwrapping the first of the fakes when a trio of wood ducks landed within feet of our hide and left as fast as they had come.

“Let’s just toss out a few for now.” Howard said. “We don’t have long before legal.”

 

Chris deployed less than a dozen of the blocks in a scattered arc to the side of the fallen tree. Returning to the cover of the branches and fishing shells from the tattered, green army surplus bag he used to haul such necessities.

 

The unmistakable metallic clap of his shotgun breach told me Howard was loaded Chris and I quickly followed suit. Stuffing our pockets with extra shells and securing our ditty bags in the branches of the tree within easy reach.

 

“Now boys, this might be some tight quarter shooting. So be very careful.” Howard instructed. “Shoot what’s in your lane and the end guns can shoot the edges.”

 

“Yes sir.” We answered as one.

 

Or voices had hardly faded when the world above us came alive with the sound of wings and chattering mallards. It was still too early to shoot when the Howard’s call trilled to life.

The old D-2 he always blew had a strange quirk to it. No matter the temperature it required a strange rolling purr to get the reed freed up. It was the most unnatural sound a duck call has ever made, but I knew from experience that it didn’t bother the ducks. I also knew that as soon as that reed was freed up, Howard would produce a sound that I had never seen mallards be able to resist.

 

When the first few notes of his opening greeting bounced off the flooded trees I hear the unmistakable sound of mallards cutting air and turning on a dime. Before the last note of the hail call sounded the first wave of ducks was filtering down through the timber, quacking loud as if scolding some greedy hen who had clearly set down at the table before the rest of the party arrived.

 

Duck hit the water all around us. Water splashed on to us and the wind of wings could be felt from every direction. It was the most unceremonious landings I had ever witnessed.  The ducks practically crashed through the trees. You could hear wings hitting tree branches and each bird that made it to the water did so with a “plopping” sound that is usually only made when one of their kind meets headlong with a load of shot at a fair altitude and collides with the water.

 

Before we knew it, the entire world was teeming with ducks. From the air and the water hens quacked and called, while all around us the strange “dreep…dreep…” of the drakes grew into a droning buzz and the general clamor and chattering of ducks in every direction drove all other sounds from the world, save the pounding of my heart and the unsteadiness of my breath.

From the south the boom of another blind told us legal shooting light had come. The distant shot was nearly drowned out by the raucous clamor of the ducks on the water and their brethren that continued to flutter and fall through the canopy. But the ducks hardly seemed to care.   My muscles tensed, and I swear I could feel every one of our hands moving to click the safeties off on the three guns that waited in the cover of the fallen oak.

 

“DO…NOT…SHOOT!” Howard whispered with as much force and authority as his hushed voice could command. From below the bill of my cap I glanced sideways at Chris. His posture was a matchto mine, head down, shoulders hunched, trying to make himself as small and still as possible. I saw ripples emanating from the water at his legs, and noticed quickly the same come from my own, and Howards.

 

It was not the cold. It was not an attempt to create motion in our decoys, the ducks were doing that just fine. As shooting time came and went two young boys and a grown man, a man who had hunted more seasons than my friend and I had been alive, stood in trembling awe of the magic of the migration.

(To be continued)

Honored (Part 2)

With my back against a giant oak and the worn, drop-lever rifle in my lap I worried the remaining daylight from the sky.

Though I was only seven seasons into my life as a duck hunter I knew enough to fear the mercurial nature of ducks in the south delta. It wasn’t a new concern, but it was amplified tenfold by my eagerness to impress Howard.

The most recent forecast from the small weather radio that dad played, almost endlessly, every evening at the camp, and every morning while we silently shared coffee before the rest of the members arose, had called for two days of steady temperatures in the low thirties, with the winds remaining northerly at a respectable five to ten miles per hour.

But after years of listening to the monotone voice of the broadcasters I had learned that forecasts were little more than a best guess and apt to change with little notice. And a change in the weather usually led to a change in the ducks.

As light began to fade from the skies and the generous population of wood ducks began to hail the coming of dark I rose from my oak, spooking a large doe that I had failed to notice, no more than a dozen yards from me.

With two short bounds she escaped to the cover of the thicket at the edge of the brake and blew a harsh warning to any other creatures who had mistaken my still form as something other than a threat.

Catching a flicker of her swishing tail through the tangle of brush I shouldered my rifle and considered taking a shot. Instead, I lowered the gun and turned my back on the poor target and made my way back to trail I knew Chris would use to on his way back to the camp.  The nearing darkness and silence from the area I knew he was hunting told me he would be along shortly. So I stood in the road and listened to the conversation of the creatures as they traded shifts and welcomed the rising moon.

I saw Chris before he saw me and for safety let out our usual call to alert him of my presence.

“Whooot!” my voice echoed in the timber.

“Whooot!” came his reply, and with that he shouldered his rifle and quickened his pace.

“No luck?” I asked, knowing the answer but knowing also that there was usually a good story from any of my friend’s outings.

“I don’t want to talk about it!” he said. And quickly launched into a detailed account of how the heavy lunch had left him in a compromising position, and short one sock when the only deer he had seen stepped out from behind a large fallen tree some twenty yards away. As we laughed he reenacted the shuffling waddle he had made trying to reach his gun while his pants were around his ankles and one boot lay empty as his bare left foot found a puddle of what he still hoped was just mud.

By the time we got back to the camp it was full dark and the quarter moon was glinting off the water of the boat trail that led into the heart of the Tupe. Chris was cold, unsure of his cleanliness, and eager for a full complement of socks and was making a bee-line for the camp when he finally got around to asking about my scouting trip.

“I’ll tell you after you wash your foot.” I said, rubbing just a touch of salt in his wounded pride. “But not around the rest of the members. We’ll talk by the campfire.”

“That good?” he said, stopping in his tracks only a few short strides from the camp, his eyes wide in his eternally boyish face.

“That good.” I said. And with that we closed the remaining distance to the stairs and climbed to the warmth we knew we would find within, as the smell of well-seasoned oak burning in the fireplace of the lodge mingled with the crisp autumn air.

 

We were haled by the members and guest as we entered the camp and asked if we had killed anything.

“Time.” Chris replied.

“And a sock.” I added, forcing Chris to retell his tale of intestinal distress for all the men gathered around the hearth. Once the story was told and the good-natured ribbing had made the rounds Chris excused himself to the back of the camp to clean up and find a full pair of socks.

With my friend gone I took my usual seat on the hearth, leaving the more comfortable chairs and sofas for the members and their guest. While I poked at the fire and warmed my hands I evaded the topic of my outing from earlier in the day and redirected the conversation to the outcome of the Saints game and other topics a safe distance from my scouting finds.

Dad was busy in the kitchen preparing teaks to go along with the innumerable other dishes Christine had prepared before she had left for the night. Though she often prepared our evening meals, dad also took his turn as camp chef and, whenever he could, let Christine and her husband leave early on Saturday afternoon so they could cook for their own family and be home the next morning for church. It was also wise to let then leave by daylight as the old Pontiac they drove had a habit of finding deep ruts in the camp road. In the worst of conditions, the members insisted on either picking her and Major up at the gravel levee. But Christine could make that sedan do things that defied mechanics and physics, and she would only accept the offer of a ride in the most extreme circumstances.

 

Once I was warmed, and the fire properly built up to a roar that would last the better part of the night, I took up another of my chores. I played bartender and waiter for the men of the camp. As usual, a large wedge of hoop cheese was on the kitchen counter. After rumbaing trough the refrigerator I found a stick of Andouille sausage and prepared a platter of sliced meat and cheese with stacks of Saltine crackers. The platter was passed around and while the men nibbled and socialized I slipped back into the sleeping quarters and gave Chris the details of what I had found, telling him not to mention it to anyone. But before I could tell him about who would be joining us dad bellowed from the kitchen. We quickly responded and were instructed to help dad carry the groaning platters of thick steaks down to the old, oil drum grill that was stationed below the house.

With the din of camp life above us and no other ears about, dad thanked us for carrying the platters and quickly shifted the topic to the coming hunt.

“You boy need to leave about twenty minutes early in the morning. I had Major fill up the Hustler, but I wouldn’t load decoys and gear until you get up.” He said, sipping from his tall scotch and water and laying the first steaks on the grill above a perfect bed of coals. As the meat sizzled and the rich fragrance from the grill filled the air we listened to his instructions.

His guest had brought along their own amphibious ATV, another 6-wheel drive contraption that could handle the mud and swamps that had to be overcome to reach the slough where dad’s blind sat nestled among ancient tupelo and cypress trees. So, he and his guests would start out at his blind but might move down the Big Hole or Mr. Herman’s Sittin Log if the birds would not grace them with their company where the comforts of dad’s blind overlooked the brake.

“So, are yall taking anyone?” he asked as he marked the time on his watch and flipped the thick steaks, releasing another wave of sound and scent.

“Howard, I mean Mr. Miller.”  I said a bit reluctantly, unsure of how my father would respond.

“Well now…” he said, taking a long pull from his drink. “That’s some strong company.”

“Didn’t you tell him about what I found?” I asked.

“WAIT!” Chris interrupted with a look of mixed awe and terror on his face. “Howard Miller is joining US?”

“I think so.” I said. “That’s what he said when I invited him.”

“I need a drink!” Chis said. Dad laughed and handed him the last few swallows of his scotch which Chris pounded it with a grimace. “I’ll get you a fresh one.” He said, realizing he had emptied the glass and nearly choked on an ice cube.

“Be careful now.” Dad laughed, “You are playing for a mighty high caliber audience in the morning. And you, Hopalong…” he said to Chris who was climbing the stairs, still apparently in a bit of shock.  “…don’t be making me a double and returning with a single.” .

“So, did you tell him?” I asked again.

Dad checked his watch and began taking the first of the steaks off the grill and resting them on one of the platters.

“No son I didn’t.  I honestly didn’t even know he was staying here tonight. Not until I saw he had left his boat and gear.” Dad tested a few of the other steaks for doneness and picked one or two from the grill.

“But Bradley William, I’m guessing he saw it in your eyes. You can’t get much past that man. And if you asked him to join you, I sure hope you know to let him do the calling and run the show?”

“Of Course!” I said, though I hadn’t really considered it. Chris and I had been calling and working our own ducks when we hunted together for the last three seasons. But, we knew when we were outclassed and there was no disputing that Howard Miller was the finest caller at Tupelo Brake. I was slightly disappointed though. To be honest I had spent my afternoon, when not fretting on the chance the ducks wouldn’t show up, daydreaming of Chris and I landing large flights of mallards calling right along with Howard. It was only a daydream, I knew better than to touch my calls when Howard and his friends were in the blind. But still, it had been such an amazing vision.

 

Chris rambled down the stairs as dad was pulling the last few steaks from the grill. He handed dad the drink and waited as my father inspected the glass, raising it to his lips and taking a long sip.

“You’re alright Chris. No matter what the deer say about ya.” He laughed and lead us up to the hungry crowd above.

Over dinner the members of the camp talked about the coming hunt. As usual Howard spoke little. Everyone assumed he would be going to the Big Hole and that whatever guest would be joining him would arrive well before daylight in the morning. In fact, they were all a bit surprised he had stayed for dinner and I imagine a few of them expected him to depart after dinner. Though he hunted the Tupe often and had his own bedroom in the new camp, Howard did not usually stay overnight apart from opening weekend or when he had important guests who he knew were there as much for the camp life as the hunt.

As for Chris and me, I am sure everyone assumed we would be joining my dad and his guests in his blind. Most all of the members had their own blind or a few select spots they hunted. It was just a given that they would hunt their own places unless they ventured off into the federal ground. But the shooting at all the blinds had been pretty consistent over the past few weeks, and though they all knew that day in and day out The Big Hole was the best blind on the club, each member had a certain level of pride in killing limits from their own spot. And no one presumed to invite themselves to another man’s blind, though they all jumped at the chance to hunt with Howard and his guests in The Big Hole when the offer was forthcoming. And since it hadn’t been, no one broached the subject.

After the meal was done, Chris and I cleared the table and tidied up the kitchen while the men retired to their seats around the fireplace for a nightcap. A few, including Howard, excused themselves and turned in for the night. But Howard made a pass through the kitchen on his way to bed and suggested a departure time that would have us up and gone before the rest of the camp awoke.

The extra early wake up made the time around the campfire short for my friend and me. But in the flickering light of the blaze we talked through the details of the morning plan and tried to settle our nerves with a few sips of brandy from the flask we had snuck out of dad’s blind bag.

When we retired to the spare bedroom the members used for storage, but had allowed us to put beds in, we could hardly wait for the morning.  Sleep was long in coming as the anticipation and nervousness rattled in our young minds.

When the rattle and clang of the wind-up, Big Ben alarm clock shattered the silence of the cold room Chris and I were on our feet and dressed before the last echoes of the bells had faded. I think it was the only time in all the years we had hunted together that I hadn’t had to fight Chris tooth and nail to get him out of bed.

The stainless-steel,  percolator coffee pot was gasping through its lasts gurgles as we tip-toed into the kitchen. It was a sure sign that dad was already wake. No matter how many times his hunting partners and I had shown him how to use the wall socket timer, dad never managed to get it right. If coffee was brewing, dad was awake. While I stoked up the coals that still smoldered in the hearth and added a few small logs to knock the chill off the room, Chris stepped out onto the porch to answer nature’s call and check the weather. Dad came into the main room just as Chris returned from the porch and as one they announce the temperature.

“33 and clear.” they both reported in near perfect unison.

“Any wind?” I asked as dad pressed the button on the NOAA Weather Radio and poured himself and each of us a cup of scalding hot coffee.

The forecast for the delta: clear skies in Greenville, with a low of 35, winds north at 5-10 Miles per hours, high near fifty…” The sleepy monotone voice remarked as if anticipating my question. The rest of the forecast remained unchanged from the day before. We would have one more clear and cold day before a warm front moved in and rain would blanket the area. It was enough.

Before my coffee had cooled enough to drink I heard the back door of the lodge close and without a word Chris and I gathered our gear and headed down the stairs. Howard was waiting, we knew, and there was no way we were going to be late.

“You boys ready?” Howard said as we loaded our guns and gear into the six-wheeler.

“Yes sir.” We replied.

“I’ll follow yall as far as Cocklebur, then we can park my bike and ride the rest of the way together.” He said, motioning for us to lead the way.

With vaporous clouds of warm exhaust drifting in the brisk air we started out from the camp and turned down the muddy turn row that bordered our property.

Taking the route Howard had suggested, though farther in actual distance, proved faster by eliminating two amphibious crossing that slowed the pace of those early ATVs to a ponderous crawl. By the time we reached the pipeline I knew we would be at the banks of cocklebur long before shooting light, with only a short amphibious crossing and a 100 yard walk ahead of us.

When I brought my ATV to a halt, Howard swung around me and motioned for me to follow. He dove his vehicle off the trail and well into a thick stand of young trees. As I pulled up beside him Chris quickly jumped out and into the back seat.  With little more than a nod from Howard I backed us out of the thicket and turned back down the trail to the spot I had marked for crossing the last slough.

Dad was overly fond of flagging tape, but I had begun to notice tacks on some of his trails that I knew belonged to ATVs other than ours. So, I had elected to mark my turn with a rotten log placed in the middle of the road. To anyone who didn’t know the trail it would not arouse much suspicion. That part of the ridge stayed high and dry and the deep bed of leaves worked well to conceal my tracks where I had turned off the road the day before when scouting.

It took a bit more effort to find my second mark. Somewhere along the edge of the slough I had found a gap in the wall of button willows that lined the bank but having walked and waded that portion of the trip it was harder to find while navigating the Hustler through, between, and around trees.

Just as I was beginning to worry, having noticed Howard glancing at his watch, I spotted my final mark, an old glass whisky jug. Though it had shone like a beacon the daylight I now could see how the brown glass was a poor choice for a marker in the pitch-black forest layered with eons of fallen leaves.

Swimming the Hustler across the narrow slough also proved more precarious than I had envisioned. With three men and their gear in the seats and sack slam full of decoys strapped to the roof the bike was much less stable and responsive than it usually was, and it was usually pretty squirrelly to begin with.

By the time we sputtered, spun, and swayed our way to the far bank the very first promise of dawn was teasing the south eastern skies, giving faint outlines to the tall bare oaks that marked the ridge and the eventual beginning of a pin oak flat that stretched nearly a mile wide and some two miles long.

(To be continued)

Honored

Dad knew as soon as I walked in the camp. But before I could open my mouth to tell him he ushered me into the bedroom and closed the door.

“You found em didn’t ya?” He said in a hushed tone.

“Yes sir” I replied, trying to hold my excitement at bay and match his whisper.

Dad took a seat on his old metal bunk bed as I paced at his feet trying to contain my excitement. I went on to explain to him in great detail where the birds were, how many and how we located them. When I ran out of information, and breath, he rose to his towering six-foot four-inch height, clamped me on the shoulder and looked me straight in the eye.

“It’s your call, you found em.  But I would be careful who all you share this with.” He said. “I promised some friends we would hunt my blind tomorrow, but you need to go back and kill those ducks before some else finds em.”

“It’s not worth me going alone dad.” I told him. “Maybe you and I can go day after tomorrow?”

“You can’t stockpile ducks.” The words he spoke were all too familiar to me, but it was the first time the decision had rested on my young shoulder. “Weather is gonna change over the nest few days and they may be gone. If you are gonna hunt em, tomorrow is the day”

“Who should I tell?” I asked, nearly begging for guidance.

“That’s up to you. I’m not saying be greedy, but whoever you take you better trust they will respect that it’s your find. Otherwise you’ll never set foot in there again without having to worry about someone else coming in on top of you or shooting it when you aren’t around.” With that he turned and walked out the door.

I stood in the small bedroom and tried to both calm myself and think of who I wanted to let in on my secret.  My friend Chris was still out, sitting on a deer stand hoping to break a long running streak of missed shots and cut shirttails. He would be joining me in the morning for sure. But it still seemed like an awful lot of ducks for just two guns.

This was before the days of cell phones. In fact, there wasn’t even a land line at the camp. The nearest pay phone was fourteen miles away, and the first three miles of that were rutted field roads that were always a gamble. So, who I might invite was limited to anyone who happened to be at the camp that day.

There were other members at the camp that I enjoyed hunting with. But they all had several guests with them and a few of them I wasn’t 100% sure would honor the unspoken gentleman’s agreement or code that my father had taught me. There was only one man in the camp I knew for certain I could trust but asking him to join ME was batting so far out of my league I was terrified to even ask.

What if the birds weren’t there tomorrow? What If I didn’t remember how to get to them in the predawn darkness? What if I was mistaken about the numbers, the species, the water depth, any number of things? Could I face asking one of the greatest duck hunters the south delta ever knew to join me on a hunt? And worse. Would he believe a fifteen-year-old kid who still sat starry eyed in awe every time I was in the blind with him?

Doubt washed over me, and I had decided that maybe it was best if Chris and I hunted it alone first. Surely that number of ducks couldn’t vanish overnight? And if we killed them the next day then maybe after he saw our success, maybe then I would be bold enough to ask Howard Miller to join me on a hunt.

When I emerged from the bedroom, resolved to play it cool and keep my secret from showing on my face Howard was walking down the hall from the kitchen towards his bedroom farther down the hall.

“Bradley William!” He greeted me in his usual way. “Come give me a hand if you would?” he continued and gestured down the hallway.

I followed, as he knew I would. It had been my role around the camp to be everyone’s helper, in season and out. My friends and I stocked the firewood, loaded in the groceries, cleared trails and any other chores the members needed. It was our way of paying our dues and our efforts had been rewarded with nearly unlimited access to one of the finest pieces of duck ground the Lord ever put in the South Delta of Mississippi.

So, when we stepped into Howard’s room I was expecting a box of decoys that need to be strung, a load of gear that he wanted to load into his truck or some other small project I was accustomed to doing for any of the members.  When the door closed behind us I was about to ask what he needed help with. But when I turned around I saw a glimmer in Howard’s eyes that I knew only too well. He had ducks on his mind.

“You found em?” Was all he said, a sly smile spreading across his face.

I was almost afraid to speak but I managed to eek out an almost apologetic sounding, “Yes sir”

“I saw it your eyes when you walked into the camp.” He said with a slight chuckle. “And when your dad shooed you back to his room I knew I was right.”

I tried to be modest but as I began telling him what I had found the smile on his face grew and I could tell he was excited by my report. He asked a lot of questions, but he never once asked where I had found the birds. When I finished my started to offer those kinds of details he managed to guide the conversation in other directions. But from what details I had given I could tell he know nearly exactly where the mallards were holding. His next comment confirmed my suspicions.

“Yall need to go in from the Strickland’s access and down the pipeline.” He said. “And come out the same way.”

“It’s a lot faster going in from the Hawks Camp levee” I said with more of a question in my voice than a statement.

“Yeah, but you’ll draw less attention if you go the other route.” He replied.

I agreed, though I didn’t quite understand.

“Well, yall get in there and out as fast as you can. Those birds may stick around for a day or two but if you band away at them all morning you may blow em out.” He said and turned back towards the door.

“Um….Mr. Miller…um…I was wondering?” I stammered, trying to stir up the nerve to ask him a question I knew I wasn’t qualified to ask. “Would you be willing to come with us in the morning?”

A soft chuckle came from him and with his back still turn he replied. “Willing? Bradley William I’d be delighted. You just tell me when we need to leave.” And with that he walked out of the room, pausing at the threshold and speaking in a voice meant for anyone in the hall or other rooms to hear.

“When you get those strung just bring them down to the truck. I’ve got an extra decoy bag in the back and a few more weights if you need them.”

Sure enough the top two bunks in his room were stacked with boxes of brand new decoys that had escaped my notice during our entire conversation. I’m still not sure if they were part of our cover story or if he really wanted them strung. But it didn’t matter. I would have stayed in that room and spun my own cord to string those decoys if I had to.  Tomorrow I was going to get to take the only man I idolized as much as my father on a duck hunt. I would have carved decoys from the wooden bunks if he had asked me to.

When I finished stringing decoys, I had managed to calm my nerves and put on a good poker face. I hauled the decoys through camp where my father and the other members where half watching a football game on the staticky color television while one of the guests fidgeted with the wrinkled aluminum foil on the rabbit ear antennae’s that strained to pull signal to our remote corner of nowhere Mississippi.

A few rumbles of snoring spoke from around the hearth, where the men of the camp had gathered after a lunch that would have shamed the finest buffet any restaurant had ever put out. Christine, the camp cook was busy washing up from the meal and beginning the preparation for a night meal that would always somehow out-do the feasts she put on for lunch. Major, her husband and general handyman for the camp, was loading the wood box beside the fireplace with as much care as he could not to wake the sleeping hunters or disrupt the men struggling to watch the game.

With my first armload of decoys I left the camp and descended the flight of stairs that led to the parking area below the camp. A few of the other members and their son’s and guests were tinkering with boats and cantankerous ATVs below and beside the house. But they didn’t pay any attention to me as I hauled the decoys to Howard’s truck and began rummaging through the back of the blazer looking for a decoy bag.

After several more trips up to the camp and back downstairs the decoy bag was full, and I placed it in the back of Howard’s truck, taking the boxes over to the side yard where Chris and I usually built a campfire in the evening when the camp was full of members and guest.

By the time I was finished half the men who had been watching the game were sound asleep on the overstuffed leather sofas and large recliners and the other half had retreated to their bunks to rest in an area with slightly less snoring.

With a few hours of daylight left I quietly packed up what gear I needed and slipped out of the camp yard to watch the sun finish its day on the banks of the Tupe while half heartedly keeping an eye out for deer and listening for what I was sure would be Chris’ next miss.

I rarely stayed around the camp in the afternoon, but that day I had to get away. I was still afraid I might give away my secret and I was not about to let anything interfere with my chance show my hero what I had found, what I could do. Solitude was the only sure defense from self-betrayal.

(To be continued)