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)