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)