Like PawPaw (Chapter 5)

A seemingly endless parade of wood ducks buzzed low over the hole. He made practice swings with the old double on a pair or two, but he held his fire. By sunrise the squealer had all but stopped flying and the occasional flight of grey ducks was all that gave the opening a look for the next half hour. His heart began to sink, just a bit. But again, the words of his grandfather’s gunning log ran through his mind, melding into his own experience, knowledge born of countless days in the timber, his, his fathers, and his father’s father’s. “Wait. Be patient. They will come to the timber when their bellies are full.”

He past a bit more time, watching a fat red squirrel make its morning rounds through the oak and bitter pecan trees of around him. The sound of cast aside acorns plunking down into the water marked the busytail’s path through the bare limbs. Waves of noisy black birds swept through the forest, lighting in great waves and moving on with a roar of wings and a chatter that blocked out all other soft sounds of the morning woods.

He was twisted around, facing back into the thick stand of young trees behind him, seeking out the travels of the old fox squirrel when he heard the soft call of a drake mallard over his shoulder.

In one fluid motion he spun, raise the gun to his shoulder drew down on the single mallard hovering inches above the nearest wooden block, and missed clean, with both barrels.

Old habits die-hard, and he kept the gun aimed at the fleeing greenhead as its wings drove frantically to push the bird high and away, he felt himself pulling on the trigger, wondering why his last round wouldn’t fire. When all that was left was the sight of tail feathers and the silence after the echo, he lowered the gun, laughing at his poor shooting and his puzzlement as to why this dang broad barrel wouldn’t fire a third shell. “This ain’t your auto.” He scolded himself lightly.

Opening the breech he drew out the two spent shells. The swollen paper hulls made a satisfying “fhwoop” as he pulled them out, a thin trail of smoke escaping from the warm tubes. The smell of the paper hulls warmed his soul. He lifted them to his nose and breathed in deep. His mind whirled back through the decades; to the first day his Papaw had let him fire a gun for real. That old twenty-eight gauge was gone, lost on river hunt years ago when nature turned violent and his father had saved them both from drowning though the bulk of their hunting gear had been lost.

He slipped the spent shells into one of the large billow pockets of the coat. It didn’t matter to him that they were supposed to biodegrade, he had been taught never to leave his hulls floating, not so much out of fear that the ducks might see them, but out of a respect for the wild. Sure they had a few small man-made intrusions here in the woods, but the men of the camp had always kept the place as pristine as possible. They came to the woods to be in the wilds, not to be reminded of the world that awaited them when the season was done or the business of life required them to return to town. It gave them a feeling of being the first to see these woods, unspoiled and mysterious. They just liked it that way.

Two more shells were loaded into the gun and he turned back to look out over the decoys. “Sorry Papaw. But, at least he knows what team I’m on.” He spoke out across the decoys.

The words had hardly left his lips when a dozen mallards, low and looking drifted past the opening. He put the call to his lips as they moved away and hit a note that almost made him cry. But without hesitation he regained his composure and sent out a comeback call in perfect pitch and cadence. The lead bird spun like its left wing had hit a pole and the rest of the birds followed right on her tail feathers.

The boss hen of the bunch belted out a greeting call and he answered with an equally exuberant invitation. She led the pack back over the opening, right down on the tree tops, well within range. Her neck was craned down and scanning side to side as she passed. Hugging tight to the tree he turned his face downward and watched the birds in the black mirror of the backwater as they drifted slowly over. The hen called again and he answered, kicking the water with one leg to create ripples once the birds had their tails to him. Again the old hen belted out a song and he shouted her down as soon as her last note cleared, then at once set in to a mix of chatter and quacks.

The flock swung again riding past the opening heading south a bit faster now but on gliding wings. He let the group get down wind about seventy yards and eased off of pleading comeback call. In and fraction of a second the group turned closed the gap and set their wings.

They came in down the shoot, the low spot in the canopy left by the fallen oak. Fluttering down from his left side the group back paddled down to the water straight in front of the Y Tree.

The old hen hit the water first and at once began calling to her descending companions. The double gun came up, roared twice and a pair of greenheads crashed the last few feet to the water as the remains of the flock scattered out through the woods in several directions.

Like PawPaw (Chapter 4)

A tear for an unknown loss slipped from his eye as he shouldered the decoy bag, cradled his grandfather’s gun under his arm, lifted the shellbox and stepped past the remains of the old house.

The path from the old house site to the river bottoms was well-worn. As the rough grass rope of the homemade shoulder strap on the decoy bag dug into his shoulder he chided himself for his stubborn refusal to believe what his grandfather had preached so strongly to new duck hunters. “Don’t bother with decoys in the timber. Just kick the water and call. If the ducks are coming to the timber decoys are just fancy table dressing, they don’t add to the feast.” He had seen it, but he had always believed that a few decoys would make even those spooky birds work down through the canopy. So, maybe this wasn’t just like Papaw would have done it, but the heavy old wooden blocks had belonged to him, thought they only knew the open waters of the cypress blind in those days. Stopping to catch his breath he shook his head. “Well, I took the time to paint the darn things, I’ll be hanged if I’m not gonna see ‘em float!” he said back through time to the old man he hoped was watching. And with that he started off again puffing clouds of warm breath into the frosty morning air.

By the time his feet carried him to the edge of the timber he was beginning to worry about getting to the Y Tree hole in time. Under the burden of the decoys, in confined by the unyielding canvas waders he had been forced to stop several times to catch his breath and readjust his load of gear. Taking out the pocket watch he turned to let the moonbeams strike the face of the time piece. “Hour to go.” He whispered through rapid breaths.

Setting down the gear he opened the wooden shell box and took out a battered head lamp. With just one match the carbide light leapt to life, again reducing his world to the stream of man-made light. He strapped the light around his cap loaded up again and began crunching through the skim of ice above the leaf cover floor of the flooded oak woods.

The Y Tree stood out in the bare canopy of the forest, a colossus of an oak. Decades of storms, thunder, lightning, ice and wind had shaped the stately figure. Her trunk was broad and straight with two main limbs left to send forth leaves in the spring and shower the bottoms with acorns when fall came around. Half way to its upper limits the evidence of old branches, jagged snags and hollow openings showed the scars of time’s relentless wear. It stood on the east edge of the opening and from the concealment of its great shadow many a mallard had come to know the end of their days.

The north wind was perfect for this hole. It gave the birds a clean approach and kept the hunter out of their sight, hidden beside the towering oak standing knee-deep in black water.

The “hole” was more of a thin spot in the forest than anything. Ages ago, perhaps even before his granfather’s days another grand had fallen, its crash felling smaller trees on to the south, parting the canopy and making a glide path down into a hardwood banquet for travel weary mallards. The decayed remnants of the old tree still remained, a wooden troth that would fill with leaves, acorns and water, a favored pit-stop for the beavers, coons and nutria that lived in the bottoms. It was the focal point of countless yellowing photos, images filled with grinning faces as they posed beside a line prime mallard drakes arranged to show the reason for the broad grins of the men who stood or knelt as the backdrop for the picture. In old black and whites the log still held its round, and it was beside this very marker he too had stood at the end of his first hunt, a small thing boy flanked by grown men proud as every to pose with the boys lone mallard positioned perfectly centered on the log.

He rested the gun case on across the log, balancing the shellbox on one edge and unshouldered his burden of decoys. One by one they were placed around the opening, nine mallards an a pair of black ducks. The blacks were only slightly out-of-place to his way of thinking. Now days few blacks made their way to this part of the flyway, now days there weren’t many black to go anywhere. But in his grandfather’s time, black ducks were no strangers to this area. Old gunning logs told of mornings when, both on the big lake and in the woods, those elegant birds made up a significant portion of the bag. A straight mallard limit was a fine hand, but a brace of blacks thrown in and you were holding a royal straight flush.

“Eleven?” He said in disbelief as he surveyed the spread in the beam of the carbide lamp. “Felt like I carried a truck load.” He thought as he waded gathered his gear and waded over to the Y tree. “Papaw,” he said to the lightening eastern sky. “Was it that you didn’t need em, or you just didn’t want to tote em?” Laughing he leaned against his hide and set the shellbox down on a crude shelf long ago nailed to the tree for just such use. The rusty zipper of the tattered leather case scratched open and he slid the side by side out with a near reverent motion. The case he hooked on a bent nail that he would swear had gotten higher up the tree every year, and likely it had.

He cradled the double gun, breech open in his right arm and flipped open the shellbox. Shining the headlamp down into it he saw the waxed green paper shells. True, they were “modern” nontoxic loads, made for the notion of being “eco-friendly”, a term Papaw would have puzzled over in his day, but the feel was there, and from a far distant childhood memory he could recall the smell of burnt powder from a singed paper hull.

“Close as I could get, Papaw.” And he drew out two shells and slid them into the tubes.

The eerie, lonesome whine of a wood duck snapped his mind back to the present. He put out the light of the headlamp and hung the contraption on the nail with the guncase. Feathers cut the air somewhere in the blackness before him, wings beat hard to slow the decent, water splashed and clipped “WHEEP” the first arrival called out from the opening to others of his kind that buzzed low over the tree tops going to and fro as shooting light finally came.

Like PawPaw (Chapter 2)

As he rowed up to the giant cypress he swung the boat down wind and eased up to the weathered gangplank leading from the nest of cypress knees to the far shore. The walkway had been built right into the tree, over the years the dead timbers slowly consumed by the living trunk and knees. With the boat tied off securely he unloaded his gun, shell box and decoys onto the thick planks then fought his way into an uncooperative pair of thick canvas waders, buttoned the suspenders and cinched the waist with a doubled length of rope.

The weight of the decoys in the musty canvas sack slung over his shoulder made him a bit uneasy as he “walked the plank” the short distance to the dry ground of the far shore. Setting the decoys down he returned to the boat for his gun and shell box. Half out of breath and sweating under the heavy coat and wool shirt he paused at the foot of the walkway and sized up the labor that lay ahead.

From here the oak woods lay a quarter-mile across the low ridge that divided the cypress lake from the river bottoms. The path was usually simple, and he was more than a little temped to cheat just a bit and fire up on of the four-wheelers that rested under the leaning roof that was the remains of the old cook’s quarters.

Long before his name was entered into the camp ledger, an old farm family had lived on this piece of ground. Mrs. Lurlean and he husband Duke had “come with the property the old members had joked. Truth was, when the men of the camp had bought the land from an old farmer, who had tired of loosing crop after crop to the annual flooding, Lurlean and Duke had been prepared to move on. But though there wasn’t going to be much in the way of farm work for them the couple to do, the men of the camp asked them to stay on, keep an eye on the property and in the bargain the camp would build them a new house, let Duke hunt and fish as he pleased and hire Lurlean to take care of the meals and keeping the camp house in order. It was a match made in heaven.

Lurlean and Duke had no living relatives; they had planted the last of their children in the high ridge by the road when scarlet fever had swept through the county. Together they knew more about the woods and waters around the camp than the farmer and all his kin ever had. They had dreaded the thought of leaving.

Papaw and the other members of the club built “L” and Dukes house first. Sparing no expense and signing over to them a note on the house and five acres, “For so long as your good souls should stay on this earth.” the paper read. “L” and Duke became and lived til their last days as the adoptive parents of the men of the camp and the generation that came after. But their shadows had ceased to move about the lake and woods long ago. Lurlean had gone first, and was buried by the men of the camp in the plot with her children. Duke followed within a week, and was laid to rest beside his wife. The men of the camp bought fine stone markers for the whole family, and more than a few grown men cried like children as the covered the last of these fine folks with the rich soil of the river bottoms.

Like PawPaw (Chapter 1)

The clatter and clang of the old Big Ben alarm clock jolted him from his hard-won slumber. Reaching over to the bedside table he fumbled with the clock trying to find the small plunger that would silence the din. Out of habit he reached up to switch on the lamp, “Not today.” He reminded himself.

In the cold darkness of the empty camp he swung his legs out from the covers and sat up on the edge of the bed. The air around him was cold and he fought the urge to dive back under the heavy warmth of the musty old army blankets. “The good old days?” he mused as he rummaged in the darkness, found the box of wooden matches and stuck one on side of the box.

By the wavering yellow light a coal oil lamp he pulled on an ill-fitting union suit and a thick pair of wool socks. He would finish dressing once the fire was going again. A warm bed of coals made short work of the scraps of kindling and soon a small but vigorous fire was burning in the pot-bellied stove. Tossing on a few respectable size splits he closed the slotted iron door and warmed his hands by the stove as the pot and roar within promised heat enough to knock back the chill.

Two more oil lamps cast a warm glow about the small cabin as assembled the percolator pot and set it on top of the stove. As he finished dressing he could hear the water begin to boil and soon the camp was filled with the smell of coffee, strong and black. In the heady mix of aromas, coal oil, pecan wood and strong coffee he assembled his gear and withdrew the old pocket watch. “Two and a half hours til shooting light” he said aloud to the empty room. ” Best get going. And with that he swigged down the last of his coffee, eased the pot over to the edge of the stove, tossed a few more sticks of wood on the fire and dampered down the flu.

The late December air was sharp on the exposed skin of his hands and face as he stepped out into the darkness, worn leather gun case in one hand, railroad lantern in the other.

Though he knew the path from the camp to the boathouse by heart, the short walk was difficult in the pail lamplight. Roots and vines grabbed at his feet and the step up onto the dock seemed to have grown in the darkness of the passing night.

He walked past several boats, decked out with the latest motors, blinds and bulging sacks of decoys. At the end of the dock he hung the lamp on the last post and looked down at the craft that would take him into the timber. Solid wood from stem to stern, made by his own hands, and today, powered by the same. In the back of the boat a canvas sack lay covered with frost, a glass eye of one of the decoys peering out at him through a small opening where the bag was cinched together at the top. “Those are gonna be heavy.”

He slipped down into the boat, set the oars in place and carefully stood to untie the bowline from the dock and douse the lantern. Seated, he shoved off shifted his feet and laid his back into the oars. The camp vanished in an instant. Above a half-moon shone down on his wake. The reflection of stars swirled and mixed in small whirlpools left by each oar. He did he best to set a rhythm to his rowing, glancing over his shoulder now and again to keep from wandering off the trail and into the thicket of button willows that flanked his path.

When the brushy willows gave way to the open lake he felt a chill run down his neck. Turning up the threadbare collar of the stiff canvas coat he made a mental note of the wind speed and direction. “Due North, or near enough.” He thought. “Not strong, but steady, should be a good day for the Y Tree.”

As the waves lapped against the side of the boat he put a little extra push in the right oar and again glanced over his shoulder to mark his course. “Head straight for the high cypress and keep your eyes on the rail-yard light.” The words from his grandfather’s journal ran through his mind, his memory of the grand old man making the written words ring through time in the old mans voice.

Apart from the sound of his rowing and the lap of waves against the boat, the world was silent. No one would be at the camp today; he had blocked out this morning just for himself. No guests, no family, no friends, just him and the woods and waters his family had hunted for generations. Today he would hunt these woods the way his grandfather had, for better or worse. No outboard motors, no fancy guns or hi-tech insulated clothes, today it was all old school. This was the day he would retire his grandfather’s gun and he would do it Papaw’s way, right down to the last detail or at least as close as he could.