Razor’s Edge

timber

Jim stood on the porch and waved goodbye as the last of the regular camp members and their guests loaded into their trucks and began to depart.

The road from the camp was in bad shape. With tires spinning and mud flying, one by one the vehicles headed towards the hard road. The whining sound of trucks in low gear stayed with him until the last mud covered vehicle rounded the bend. Though the vehicles where out of sight to the young man stood on the porch looking out across the field towards the levee until he saw each vehicle from our camp crest its rise. Three quick blasts of a horn echoed across the open field. Doc had remembered to give the all clear. Jim turned and re-entered the empty camp.

For most of his friends Christmas break was all but over. Monday they would all be back in classes catching up with each other on the loot Santa had brought and their social outings from the break. For the men of the camp, work put off during the holidays now had to be attended to. His own father was out of the hunting picture at least through Thursday, but had left me with specific instruction to call him if the birds moved in. There was no phone at the camp, but the fifteen mile trek to the nearest pay phone was worth the effort when the young hunter got to tell his father or other camp members that birds were in. And Jim had a feeling his dad could clear his calendar if needed. The judge he several motions to argue before was a fellow waterfowler and a frequent quest at the camp, postponements where not out of the question.

Alone at the camp, with eight hundred acres all to himself, and thousands of acres of public ground around him Jim felt like a young king. But royalty hardly has to earn their keep. So he decided to get my chores out of the way before surveying his domain.

None of the other member’s children were allowed to have a gate key or stay at the camp alone.Jim had earned that great privilege through his labor. Throughout the season and all through the year he took care of the place. From stocking in groceries to clearing roads, if it needed doing he was their man. Friends often helped out and where in return invited on hunts, so the work was worth it to them. But they all had to get back to school.

Because of some less than admirable behavior on his part, Jim’s parents had sent him to a different school from all the kids he had grown up with. It was a boarding school for the most part, but Jim was a “Day Student”. He still lived at home but his parents thought the school would offer a more ridged structure that, combined with keeping him away from a slightly rougher crowd he had fallen in with at his previous school, might just set their youngest on a better path. It had been a tough transition for Jim but it had it’s up-side as well. While he had to endure Saturday classes and getting the stink eye from a good many of the wealthy boarding students, the rigorous schedule also meant that his break for the holidays was about a week longer than everyone else’s, at least that’s how Jim saw it. He also got long weekends several times a year. So with his friends in school and the camp members catching up on work he had the run of the place to myself.

Once the dishes from lunch where done and the floors swept and mopped he took care of the last in-house details. A lot of these were little touches that no one would have expected him to do, but he did them out of gratitude for the trust all the camp members had placed in him. They would return to find their floors vacuumed, their beds made and any scattered gear put back in its place. Some of them thanked him every time and told him how much they enjoyed coming back to a clean, well stocked camp. Others never said a word.

When the house was in order he threw on my light jacket and went out to reload the wood box and take care of the ATV’s and boats. Restocking the wood box didn’t take that much, above average temperatures had kept the fireplace less active than usual, burning only at night and then more for ambiance than need of warmth. The remaining tasks all took less time than expected and by the time Jim was through he still had enough daylight left for an afternoon hunt.

 

The thermometer on the porch read 63 when he passed by it on his way to gear up for an outing. It was warmer than he wanted for a decent deer hunt. Jim had a nice buck staked out that was holding up on one of the small hardwood islands among the cypress and tupelo swamp, but he doubted he would be active as warm as it was. Glancing out through the large picture window that overlooked the boat trail he noticed that the light rain that was falling was not accompanied by any wind. It could hardly even be called a rain, more like a supper sized mist.

He considered spending the afternoon scouting local farms and fields for ducks. They never hunted our place past noon and the birds hardly ever came to the timber in the rain anyway, so even hunting the government woods for a late afternoon mallard or two seemed like a waste of time. He sat for a moment considering his options and settled on hunting squirrels. The rain would silence his footsteps and droplets from soaked branches would betray any movement the tree rats made. But it really didn’t matter, staying at the camp was out of the question, even if all the more he accomplished was to wander around the woods for a few hours carrying a gun.

Leaving the camp yard he made a swing through the low thicket just inside the woods edge out of habit. The odd opening in the forest, a tangle of briars and buck vines looked for all the world like it should be a home to countless rabbits but in three years of stomping the small patch of ground he had yet to either flush a cane cutter or convince himself it wasn’t worth the effort. Every stump got a kick as he struggled through the tangles of briars and wandered off on his way, still convinced that one day this fallow ground would produce a fine long ear or two.

The squirrels were slightly more cooperative. By the time he had reached the end of the ridge that parallel the boat trail he had three reds and a black the size of a house cat swinging from his belt. Along the way the forest floor told him he had guessed right about the deer. Here and there among the thicker parts of the woods he found gatherings of dry patches in the glistening blanket of rain soaked leaves. The deer where bedded down and had been for some time, before his clumsy approach had sent them in search of safer hiding.

Sitting on an old log at the end o the ridge he slipped the #6’s out of his gun and replaced them with a slug followed by to OO buckshot. Jim pulled a blaze orange vest out of his jacket pocket and decided to wait out the rest of the day loaded for deer.

 

Just south of the point was one of the small islands he knew the deer held up on. Many mornings we had flushed them off into the swamp as we sped by in our boats on the way to the blinds. With a little luck he might catch his buck easing back to the island to bed down, if it wasn’t already there.

The woods were still and silent. Jim kept his eyes focused on the edge of the ridge where the open oak ridge transitioned through thick button willow to the cypress and tupelo gum swamp. Two trails intersected less than forty yards from his station and with almost no wind it seemed the best place he could figure to be on the off chance his buck was out cursing before bed.

A fat doe caught him nodding off and snorted her displeasure at the intusion. Her alarm call brought the darkening world to life before his eyes. She stood no more than ten feet away, a yearling a few steps beyond her in the heavier cover of the button willows. Jim watched her for several minutes as light faded and owls called down the night. She was not about to move, content to stand her ground until darkness insured her escape.

“Go on to bed.”He said to her and stood up. In one bound she was gone, disappearing into the growing shadows of the swamp. He listened until her splashing stopped. She had gone straight to the island.

With only the frailest light remaining he set his feet on the road back to the camp. By the time he reached the half way point darkness was complete and he paused to dig my small light out of his pocket. Standing there Jim began to notice something. It was colder now and above he could hear the limbs of the forest collide in a stiffening breeze. The adrenalin from his encounter with the doe and the brisk pace of his return walk had dulled his perception of the drop in mercury. He knew the onset of night would have knocked off a few degrees but the shift felt more dramatic.

By the time he could see the lights of the camp house he was chilled to the bone, his breath exploded in front of him in a thick white fog. Jim began to berate myself for not having laid in a fire before I left. He would need one tonight, and soon.

He hung the four squirrels on the cleaning bench and clutched a load of kindling with stiff, stinging hands. The thermometer on the porch spelled out in detail what his body already knew. Somewhere in his slumber the cold front that had refuse to move for several days had driven down through the delta, the temperature had dropped twenty five degrees in as little as two or three hours.

The coal oil soaked kindling leapt to flame and he hunkered on the hearth before the warmth until his hands became of use again. Tossing several large, split logs on the blaze he turned his back to the hearth to chase the remaining chill from his bones.

Lights glared across the front window of the camp and Jim walked out onto the porch to see who had ventured back to their remote corner of the forrest. The dark green pick-up topped with blue lights told him at once that it was not a camp member, but still a friend.

Samuel was one of the two local wardens and a frequent guest at the dinner table and occasionally one of the blinds. He stepped out of the truck, gave a friendly wave and without a word climbed the stairs up to the camp.

“Got the place to yourself tonight?” he said extending his hand.

“Yes Sir, anybody down at the deer camp?”

The neighboring land owners camp lay on the other side of the field was a frequent haunt of memebrs of the duck camp and the wardens.

“Nope. Henry might be back in the mornin’ but the rest of ‘em are bout done for the season.”

“Come on in. I just got a fire going and the coffee is still hot.” Jim offered.

“Sounds good, thank ya.”

Back inside they sipped coffee and enjoyed the growing blaze. Samuel wasn’t much on small talk but silence in his company was never uneasy and what few words he did speak where always worth waiting for.

Jim told him of his encounter with the doe and the slightest laugh passed his lips as he flipped through our camp records. Detailed accounts of all our hunts where kept and Samuel read them whenever he stopped by. He downed the last swig of his coffee, set the gunning log on the table and rose.

“I was about to throw a steak on if you care to stay for dinner. I got an extra out just in case anyone stopped by.” Jim said as he watched the warden walk to the hearth and spread his fingers before the roaring flames.

“Much obliged, but I got to get on. I would take those squirrels if you don’t want to clean ‘em.” The warden said.

His eyes where as sharp as a hawk’s, the squirrels where a good forty feet from where he parked and the lights of the house did little to illuminate the cleaning table. It seemed impossible that he could have seen them.

“Those boys of mine could use the practice skinning ‘em. Bout ruined mine this season.”

“Help yourself.” Jim said, a bit of surprise still evident in his voice. He turned and walked toward the kitchen his limp evident as he hade his way. “There’s a few cleaned ones in the freezer if you want ‘em?” the young host offered.

“Naw, those‘ll do fine. Just some coffee and I got to get. Some boys from town been shinen’ from the levee and I need to catch up with ‘em and have a little talk.”

Spot-lighters where to blame for his limp, several years back he had chased a truck load of outlaws down a narrow dirt road. They had taken a couple of shots at him when the he kicked on the blue lights, and he was none to happy with their manners. One of the men in the back of the fleeing pick-up had shot out his windshield, missing him by no more than a few inches and causing him to loose control of his vehicle. At a fair clip he had caught a large tree dead center in the grill.

He had darn dear lost his life and the shame of it was that he knew the fellas, at least passing well. They thought they had gotten away clean, but Samuel had convinced the Sheriff and Judge to wait on their arrest until he was out of the hospital and back under his own power. Story had it that he just waited until he saw the three men together in a café one day and just walked right up to them. Folks who saw the event said the men just stared at him in disbelief when he calmly dropped the three warrants on the table. “Let’s go.” Is all Samuel said, and away they went.

“Well, good luck. If you’re gonna be out a while just fill up that thermos and take it along. I got another in my room.” Jim said.

“Much obliged. I suppose you’ll be out chasin ducks in the morning.” He said as he filled his cup and reached for the thermos.

“Might as well. At least the weather is getting right.”

“Yep, and the birds are startin’ to come in. Saw a couple hundred filter down in the field just before dark.” Samuel mentioned as he continued fixing up his coffee without turning around. “Moon’s commin’ full and that north winds gonna have the clouds gone in an hour or so.”

“Sounds great to me. Been kind a slow the last week.”

“Yep, I saw that. But its about to get right. A fella could sit on Henrys log in the morning and make up a lot of lost ground, wouldn’t even have to get there before eight o’clock. These new birds are gonna feed all night and high tail it to the flats in the morning to rest up.”

“Sounds like right where I need to be. Thanks for the information.” Jim replied, taking the Warden’s word as gospel. Few men knew that swamp as well as Samuel.

“Sure thing. Might have to stop by and pick out a few with ya if you don’t mind the company?”

“Come on, love to have ya!”

“We’ll see. Depends on tonight.”

“Well good luck and I hope you get to join me.”

“Yeah, me too.” He thanked Jim again for the coffee and the squirrels and was out the door. From the porch Jim watched the warden leave. The tailpipes of his truck billowing steam as he turned around in the yard and drove out through the field, his headlights never came on and he vanished in an instant.

With the coals burning in the grill out on the porch Jim tossed another log on the fire and thought about Samuel’s words. The season had been poor so far and the temptation to “play catch up” would surly be there in the morning if the ducks were. In his earliest days of hunting with them the men of the camp were not beyond such a thing. Jim had taken part in more than one such shoot. But when duck numbers had begun to fall everyone seemed to take note and “stretching the limit” had happened less and less. So far this season there had never been an opportunity to be tempted.

The thought stayed with him through his meal and beyond. Everything Samuel had said was likely true. A fella could easily kill a sack full of ducks from Henry’s log when the conditions where right. The oak flats the surrounded the old fallen tree would teem with mallards at times, and tomorrow promised to be just such a morning. But other parts of his words now ran through the young man’s mind. “Might have to stop by and pick out a few myself…” Was it a caution, a warning or simply a passing thought? His tone was always so even, his voice let his words stand alone.

Unable to shake the thoughts and declare victory for either the angel of the devil who whispered in his ears Jim decided to ride out to the field and see what the front had delivered in the way of new ducks. The sky was clear and stars shone faintly, their luster outdone by the rising moon as he drove out from the camp.

From the cab of his small truck Jim watched and listened as the ducks poured in, just as the warden had predicted. From every direction loud calls from bossy hens beckoned to their approaching kin. Ghostly hoards of waterfowl could be seen passing near at hand and fluttering down onto the glistening surface of the water. An hour or more he sat enthralled. A constant buzz of drakes talking filled his ears, no one call distinguishable from another. Strident wing beats and the roll of birds lifting off and settling back down in the flooded bean field soon became a constant roar, punctuated now and then by a loud hen’s plea and then another’s until it seemed every girl in the flooded beans of the slash was stating here case as the finest catch for a lucky drake.

Jim went to bed with visions of the moon lit field running behind his closed eyelids. The accompanying sounds ringing in his ears. In troubled dreams he watched the skies fill with ducks, his shots never finding their mark.

Though he scarcely believe he had ever fallen asleep, the jarring ring of the wind up alarm clock told him otherwise. Jim shot out of bed and dressed in an instant, the camp having taken on a strong chill in the passing hours.

With the fire rekindled and the coffee taking its own sweet time he tried to pass the minutes without thinking of his little dilemma. It was no use. The mass of ducks that had moved in during the night made the potential for temptation all too real. He battled back and forth with himself, each decision winning out and then loosing ground, as he tried to picture the day ahead. At last he found peace by simply putting off the decision.

“No point in worrying about that ‘til the fourth greenhead falls.” He told himself, careful not to speak his loose ethics aloud. When his thermos was filled Jim set out in the boat under star filled skies. A skim of ice creaked around the base of the button willows that lined the trail as he wound through the woods toward his destination and decision.

After passing through the permanent spread of decoys in front of The Big Blind Jim turned the tiller hard and pointed the boat east toward the point of the shallow ridge that was home to Henry’s Log. He beached the boat where the ATV trail cut through the swamp between ridges, shouldered his gear and eased off into the darkness.

Wood ducks flushed with eerie wails as he slipped through the shallow waters toward Henry’s log. The slightest traces of ice had formed around the bases of the trees and in the shallowest parts of the flats. He tossed my three decoys haphazardly into the small opening south of his perch and settled in to wait for dawn.

His father and the rest of the men of the camp hunted the flats without any decoys at all. They just stood in the shadows of the oaks, kicked the water and called if necessary. When it was right calling was pointless. If the flats were on you could blow a kazoo and the ducks were gonna come anyway. But Jim couldn’t help but feel like a couple of decoys could give him an edge, or at least they wouldn’t hurt.

Shooting light came and went with the usual onslaught of woodducks. They provided entertainment in the early frail light but Jim’s gun stayed resting on his lap. Children on their first hunts where allowed to shoot woodies and occasionally the whole camp took part in a late afternoon pass shoot, but as a rule they shot only mallards. Pintails were allowed and black ducks where a trophy but greenheads reigned supreme.

Even in the days when “extra” ducks where taken there was an ethic of sorts among us. Hens where a big no-no, after all they where duck factories, and any member who shot one on purpose was scolded and ridiculed enough to ensure they would do their utmost not to repeat the mistake. Guests were made aware of the camp’s standards and a breach of the rules meant the offender had spent his last night at their camp. It was an odd sort of outlaw code, here these men would stack greenheads well beyond legalities and reason, but a hen shooter was lower than low.

When sunrise rolled around the acrobatic display of the squealers was over. Jim had yet to even hear a mallard. Had Samuel been wrong? Twisting his head around every few seconds to scan the brightening skies Jim waited for daylight visions of what he had glimpsed by moonlight the night before. By seven thirty only one greenhead had passed within sight, and fled at the sound of the young man’s calling. Still he waited.

He glanced at his watch, 8:15 and not a mallard in ear shot. Jim stood to stretch my legs and consider his options. If it was going to be yet another slow day he could just as well spend it in the comforts of my father’s blind. He knew better than to go to The Big Blind without express permission from Harold, the member who had claim to the best hole in the swamp. His dad’s blind was not the worst, on some days it was a burner of a blind. But day in, day out, The Big Blind was the best duck hole within several counties. When Harold was in camp he always extended invitations to Jim and his dad to join his group. So Jim wasn’t about to disrespect that kindness and risk losing his seat when Harold was back in camp.

The cold was starting to sink into Jim’s bones and the thought of a heater and a hot can of soup was getting the better of him. What his father’s blind may have lacked in overall duck killing it more than made up for in comfort and amenities. A closed off warming room in the center of the wrap around shooting porch held a two burner stove, heat and a cupboard Jim kept stocked during the season with canned soups, stew and chilli along with the required tins of Vienna Sausages, hot sauce, crackers and other condiments. Slow days in the blind were one thing but his father was more and more about comfort and comradery as the years went by and his latest blind was set up to afford he and his guests with ample opportunity to enjoy both while they waited for another flight of mallards and cursed the steady barrages of shots that usually echoed through the swamp from The Big Blind.

Slinging his gun Jim turned to gather his trio of fakes and head for the boat. It was a short ride from the point to the blind and a warm bowl of something was calling to the young man’s stomach. If the birds did pile in as Samuel had predicted they might just pay a visit to his dad’s blind. And if not at least he would be comfortable. His cold fingers had hardly touched the bright bill of the mallard decoy when at sound from skies made him freeze in his hunched position and twist his head over his shoulder toward the bright blue above.

From the north they came, mallards low on the tree tops and in numbers he had not seen in years. Jim turned his head downward and watched them by their reflection in the waters around his feet as the passed over the bare branches above. He dropped to his knees slowly when they had crossed the little opening. When the birds were moving away he reached for his call and gave a quick comeback to the departing wave of birds. Shuffling on his knees through the water he made it back to the log and crouched behind it as the entire group dropped their wings at the sound of the call and spun around.

There was no second pass. The mass of birds lined up on the opening and dropped their landing gear. All at once the hundred or more mallards where down through the trees and fluttering above the water. Jim struggled to get my gun sling from around his shoulder and the birds that had managed to land leapt into the air. But from above them others where still filtering down as he cut loose on a backpedaling drake. His first shot dropped the bird down through the confused mass of descending and climbing mallards below. His second and third shot went astray and in an instant the birds where gone. Jim quickly reloaded and slipped out to the drake, flipping him upright and staking him out as a fourth decoy, a trick old man Henry had taught him from this very spot.

Before Jim was back in place other groups had begun to work the area. In every direction mallards could be heard and seen. A trio dropped in on him unexpected and he emptied my gun on the lead drake without cutting a feather. Cussing himself he reloaded and tried to talk his nerves down to a rational level of enthusiasm. It was useless.

His next four shots caught only tree limbs and air. He was missing mallards so close he could feel the wind from their wings, or so it seemed. There was hardly time to reload between flights and Jim’s young nerves where a shambles. The next shot winged another greenhead and he ran it down in the shallows rather than firing again. After ringing the bird’s neck it too was staked out as a decoy and Jim returned to his post. Then his shooting slid into an even worse slump.

Nine more hulls floated in the water and he had little more than a few floating feathers to show for it. He was beside himself and nearly becoming irrational. He decided that he just couldn’t shoot sitting down and scanned the area for a suitable tree to lean against. To his right stood the ruins of another old oak, some fifteen feet tall and apparently a favored diner of woodpeckers. It would put him a little further back from the opening but he figured that was not all bad. The birds he had been missing where in the five to ten yard range and tried to justify his poor shooting by being over choked for such close quarters. He knew it was only a justification for letting his excitement get the better of him but he was desperate.

The sun was now glinting off the waters around him so Jim moved around the tree into its shadow. No sooner had he taken up his new position than another large group careened down through the trees. His first shot was on target but the bird was not hit well and he had to use his other two to put him down solid, firing them off in rapid succession as he fluttered toward the water and splashed down turning belly up. He was one away from the limit, but before the previous night’s ethical debate could even enter his mind two drakes made a low swing, calling down to their lifeless friends below. Hastily Jim reloaded and gave them a few short quacks. Those two greenheads however wanted to think about things for a moment.

Jim kept up a mellow series of calls as the pair made circle after circle above the leafless canopy. They were so low at times he thought of taking them at treetop, but confidence in his shooting was still sagging so he continued to assure them that all was well.

At last they made up their minds and began their approach. The debate raged in him anew. The two drakes would be on him in an instant and if he shot well he could have them both. He hadn’t heard an ATV, a boat or even another hunter’s shots from the public side of the swamp. He was alone and the woods were starting to fill with new ducks eager to feast on acorns and loaf in the shallows of the flats.

The pair of drakes broke through the tree tops and their wings stroked hard against gravity to ease their decent. Jim drew down on the drake nearest greenhead and fired. The bird crumpled.

It was decision time. In an instant all the options, emotions and fears assaulted the young man’s mind. The other drake was right there his escape route carrying him towards Jim’s hide. A simple swing of the gun barrel and he knew he could fold the mallard.

With the blast of a shotgun his decision was made and the drake splashed down stone dead at Jim’s feet. Jim felt sick, confused, scared. The realization hit him simultaneously with the sound of a familiar voice.

“Nice shot.” Samuel said as Jim around the tree just and saw the warden break open his stack barrel. A smoking spent hull hit the water and he dropped a fresh shell into the bottom barrel.

“Thanks…thanks.” Jim stammered.

“That wraps it up for you, doesn’t it?”

“Uh, yeah I guess it does.”

“Well, I forgot my calls, how ‘bout stickin’ around and callin for me.”

“Sure,” How could Jim say no?

“Stake out those two, but keep an eye on which ones are yours.” The warden said as he took cover behind a wide based willow oak. Jim did as he was asked and took up his position again by the dead snag, unloading the unspent shell from his own gun.

The flight picked again at once and either because or in spite of Jim’s calling every mallard in the county wanted to pitch in right beside Henry’s Log. Samuel went three for three in short order and his limit was filled.

“Let’s just wait and watch for a minute.” He said “Nice callin’”

They sat for half an hour while the birds continued to fill the woods. Jim didn’t bother to call anymore. The two hunters just stood by their trees and watched the birds make up their own minds. More than anywhere else they wanted to be around Henry’s log, but the rest of the swamp was soon echoing with the raucous call of hens insisting their spots were the best.

Soon Samuel waded out from his tree. “Lets leave these birds alone and let em rest up.” With that the world rose up with ducks around them. Seeming oblivious to the sight the warden waded out to the staked birds and picked up his four drakes. Jim joined him and gathered my own and the three decoys.

“You’re pretty good with that call.” Samuel offed.

“Thanks. Nice shooting by the way. I wish I could hit like that.”

“Awe, you do alright. Nerves can be tough. You’ll steady out with time.”

“Want a ride back to the camp. The boat is just down at the point.” Jim asked, still not sure how the warden had gotten this far into the woods without a boat or ATV.

“Naw, I’m gonna ease back toward the deer camp and see if I can’t get some more practice squirrels for the boys.”

“Alright then, I enjoyed it.” Jim replied. “Stop by later if you want some coffee.”

“Just might.” Samuel said without looking back, his voice even, his foot steps steady as he walked away gazing up into the trees.

It was the last time Jim faced the decision of “catching up”. He never asked Samuel about it and the warden never volunteered. Jim like to think he wasn’t going to shoot the other drake. He like to think Samuel folded that greenhead just so he wouldn’t have to make the choice. He would never know. But since that day Jim have never had to stare that side of himself down again, the decision had been made and never regretted it, no matter who it was that actually made it.

 

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The Majors (Final)

       waders

Though Tal’s brief alligator wrestling had given us some quality entertainment it wasn’t long before we all focused again on the hunt. The ducks had all but stopped working the oil well pond and Howard gave the order for everyone to pack up. After the recent excitement Tal did not offer to help pick up the decoys. In fact there was a brief pause in all of the grown up’s movement when that time came. But, as men will often do, they teased each other enough about being scared of the gator that nobody was going to dare refuse to wade back into the hole.

Once all the gear was loaded back in the trucks our group gathered around the tailgate of Howard’s Bronco.

“So what’s the plan?” Dad asked

“There were a lot of birds working somewhere off to the North.” Howard replied. “Let’s see if we can make it over to Hawk’s Camp Ridge. They might be keeping something open over in The Tupe or Fish Hole.”

With that we loaded back up, cranked up the heaters and our caravan started picking its way north. The trails in this part of the woods were narrow and winding. The Blazers and Bronco parade moved slowly as it wound its way around trees and thickets. There were several places where full halt had to be called to scout out more open forest or move downed tree tops. Progress was slow but with every stop we could still see low flights of mallards working in the distance. The Tupe might well be frozen but the ducks had not left.

The wind was up by then and as we rumbled through the woods brief breaks in the clouds cast brilliant cold sunlight down through the bare gray braches of the trees, the deep blanket of leaves, in shades of muted auburns and browns rustled at the feet of aged oaks, bitter pecan and hackberry trees. Bright red berries sparsely scattered in thickets stood out in sharp contrast to the more humble hues of winter in the delta.

We crossed several small swags, the weight of the trucks easily breaking through their ice covered waters. But a glance out the widow showed how deep the freeze was. Hunks of broken ice skittered across the surface of the sloughs none thinner than half a inch.

Twice Howard stopped ahead of us when I could see no obstruction to the trail. He and Jimmy would partially emerge from the doors of the truck, standing on the floorboards with their arms on the open doors looking above and ahead. Though I could not see the objects of their observation dad explained their behavior. They were scanning the skies watching the low flights of ducks, trying to pinpoint the birds’ destination.

A third stop came just at the edge of what appeared to be an impenetrable thicket. Howard’s left arm extended from his lowered window and gave a sign for us to stay in our vehicles.

“Look.” Dad said in an unnecessary whisper. We were still inside our vehicle with the windows up but I knew from his tone that we were close on the mallards’ trail. I leaned forward and peered through the mud spattered windshield. At first I didn’t see what he was looking at, then, through the thick tangle of tie vines and small trees I caught a flash of movement. A respectable size flight of mallards, cupped up and low were pitching down through the taller timber in the distance. With the new wind and scattered sunlight their decent was a colorful chaos of acrobatic decent. They fell from the skies and vanished behind the bare branches of the woods ahead of us. Then another group and another made the same air show stunt before us.

Howard again signaled for us to stay in our trucks but this time he slowly opened his door and stepped out of his Bronco, easing the door closed as exited and began slowly walking back to us. He walked up to dad’s window and dad slowly turned the handle to lower the mud mottled glass. There was a sparkle in his eyes when he leaned in and began to talk.

“Bill William I think we found em.” He said. “There’s a pretty decent oak flat on the other side of this thicket. I’dve thought it was solid ice but I guess they kept it open.”

Howard’s voice was low but excited, his words tumbled out in short sharp setences.

“We can’t get around this thicket. Gotta go through it. So just follow close. If you get stuck, get out and hop in another truck.” And with that he was gone, walking back to the other vehicle to undoubtedly deliver the same message.

When Howard go back in his truck he waved his arm like a cavalry commander calling for an assault.

“Hang on!” dad said and we charged headlong into the thicket.

Limbs slapped the windshield. Vines snagged at the bumper and braches and briars made screeching sounds as they drug across the hood and sides of the truck. Small trees pounded into the grill and bent beneath the bodies of the trucks. Our tires were spinning and the small colum of trucks slid, swerved and slushed through the tangle being beaten on all sides by brambles, branches and briars.

“Look at THAT!” dad shouted as a prime swamp buck leapt from a downed tree top just ahead of Howard’s truck. His horns wide and nearly white the deer bounded from the cover and broke through the thicket with our convoy close on his hoves.

Howard cut a hard right turn and followed the big buck out of the dense low forest into the open woods. The deer cut back to the left and the trucks followed as he loped, seeming only slightly alarmed down the higher center span of a ridge.

A mammoth fallen oak obstructing the open woods made the buck take an ninety degree turn toward the button willowed edge of a slough and our charge came to an abrupt halt as Howard’s Bronco slide sideways, unable to match the whitetail’s talent for turns.

When the buck vanished into the button willows the earth rose up with ducks ahead of him. As far as I could see through the now cracked windshield mallards were boiling up from the still unseen waters ahead of us. I heard dad’s door open and quickly jumped out of the truck myself. From the corners of my eyes I saw that everyone was out of their vehicles, standing in stunned silence staring at the sight before us.

The ducks that had been startled by the fleeing deer covered the sky and his path could be marked by the continuing lift off of countless mallards. But the birds did not depart. They rose in clouds of color and noise, parting at either side of his path, swarmed then resettled back beyond the button willows. The sound was eerie, almost alien. No hens called but the drakes strange sound was like the hum of a hornets nest played over the soundtrack of an angry ocean as their wings tore air from the crisp winter woods.

We stood in silence for long moment before anyone spoke. Looking around I expected to see smiles but the faces of the men and boys around me spoke only of awe and reverence.

Jimmy finally broke the spell.

“Grab your gear and let’s get em”

Everyone scrambled to gather their guns and shell bags. Demery and Howard each shouldered a sack of decoys and with the hum of hordes of mallards ahead of us we marched toward the slough still concealed before us.

As we approached the edge of the button willows the ducks began to roll. Still they did not climb into the sky and leave, they simply lifted as high as was needed and flew only so far as they must to evade our entrance to their lair. The edge of the slough was a solid sheet of ice and not even the larges men of our party broke its surface as we beat and busted a path through the thick cover.

When the button willows gave way to the more open part of the slough the ice began to give. In just a few steps all the men were breaking through the ice, the water rising up to their knees.

“Howard.” Dad said as he saw what was coming. “Why don’t yall go on out and find the opening and Brad and I will hold up here and try our luck?”

I felt my heart fall again. With no waders I was going to be left behind.

“Oh HELL no!” Jimmy said. Stomping back to our side. “Lawyer you hand me yall’s gear and put that boy on your back. He ain’t gonna miss this!”

Jimmy, Howard and Demery divvied up our gear and I climbed onto my dad’s back.

“Now Bill William you’re an old bastard so you let us know when you need a break.” Demery said as we stomped and tromped through the thick ice. The ducks could still be heard in the distance but open water was nowhere in sight. Dad carried me for about fifty yards before he called for a break.

“You getting old Lawyer!” Jimmy teased him. “Bring that boy over here and put him on this stump while you catch your breath.

Dad stomped his way to the large stump Jimmy had indicated and lowered me down.

“Lets hold up here and see what these birds are doing.” Howard offered as he made his way over to my perch.

“Give that boy his gun Demery.” Howard said. “We might wind up having to tree top a few while the old man recuperates.” Howard looked at me and winked.

“Who’s go my gun?” Dad asked

“Hold up now Lawyer. Nobody said anything about YOU getting to tree top?” an easy laugh passed through the group but dad remained gunless.

The drone of the ducks could still be heard through the woods and occasionally we caught glimpses of them through the trees, either fluttering up and resettling or walking on the ice covered water among the scattered timber. A few flights drifted over our heads but nothing came low enough for shots. Our four footed party member paced cautiously on the suface of the ice, throwing his nose into the wind and whining when the scent of the ducks drifted to him.

“I think it gets a little deeper down that way.” Howard said, pointing in the direction of the last group of ducks we had seen filtering down through the trees. “Let’s ease that way and see if that where they are keeping it open.”

With that dad started to make his way back over to my stump, having wandered a short distance away to sit on a log while we rested.

“I got this little shit.” Jimmy said, wading up to me. “Can’t have an old SOB like you falling out on us way out here.” Dad protested and again offered for he and I to stay back while the rest of the group went on but Jimmy wasn’t gonna hear any talk of that.

“You just try to keep up Bill. I can tote this boy all day.”

“And anyway” Howard added. “We can carry the boy around fine but if you try and wind up dead out here the whole lot of us couldn’t drag your big ass outa this swamp”

We made our way further into the slough but open water was nowhere to be found. I was passed from Jimmy, to Howard to Demery several times as we search for liquid water. They made stops where a log or stump offered a place for me to stay up out of the ice and give their backs and shoulders a rest.

During one of our stops Howard had the men bust open a few small holes in the ice and scatter a half dozen decoys close to their feet in the openings. When a flight of ducks came by they all called with as much energy, pleading and volume as I had ever heard. A good group of mallards finally got too close for their own good and together we managed to drop a half dozen mallards onto the ice around us.

While the dog made his uneasy retrieves, the ice creaking below him, the ducks from further down the slough at last had had enough and began lifting up above trees. Soon the skies above us where swarming with ducks. Howard and his crew tried to coax the birds into range for a time but the mallards would not be fooled. Eventually Howard told everyone to stop calling and just hold still. We would watch and see what the birds did and then decide from there what to do.

“And don’t shoot til I say.” Was his final command.

The ducks milled and drifted above us with very little calling. The wind was not rather strong and the birds seemed to be having trouble lining up their approaches. In the distance we saw a few flocks get down through the trees again but their decent looked more like controlled crashes than landings.

From the log where they had placed me the far bank of the slough was visible. The shore in that area was clear of button willow and the shallow frozen waters spread out around the bases of a stand of red oaks and bitter pecans maybe a hundred yards away.

All at once a single greenhead dropped through the canopy and landed on the ice at the edge of the oak, then another followed and then it seemed every duck in the delta decided it was time to rest their wings.

They were too far away to shoot but as we watched hundreds of mallards drifted, dropped and plummeted down from the cloud studded skies all seeming to want to settle on a spot no bigger than a beach towel.

As each flock broke own through the trees another was setting their wings and preparing to land. On the ice ducks touched down and waddled to the sides as the next group crowded down on their heads.

Soon the ice in the distance was covered with mallards and the skies were again empty. The ducks milled about for a moment then in a nearly single file line began walking towar the edge of the slough. At first I thought they might have seen us and were putting distance between themselves and our itching trigger fingers. Then Howard whispered.

“I’ll be damned! They’re dry feeding!”

I didn’t’ know what that term meant at first.

“What’s that?” I whispered back, transfixed at the sight of hundreds of mallards looking for all the world like they were playing on the bank like children in the leaf piles of a freshly raked yard.

“They’re eating acorns off the ground.” Dad whispered back.

“Now that ain’t something anyone is ever gonna believe” Jimmy said in a low voice of amazement.

As I studied the ducks I could see what the men were talking about. The mallards were rooting around in the forest liter with their bills, finding red oak acorns. They would grab one in their bill, toss their head back ad choke down the hard acorn then immediately go back in search of another.

As they fed they made a strange mummer unlike any call I had ever heard before. And the sound of them rustling through the leaves with their bills and flat, webbed feet was crisp and loud.

Eventually they wandered out of sight but we still stood in silence for a time listening as the din of their unusual feast filtered through the trees.

That was the last we saw of ducks that day. The skies had cleared and the winds had risen to a roar by the time the men took turns carrying me on their backs and shoulders through the thickening ice. By the time we got to the trucks and back to the camp it was beyond bitter cold and even the flowing waters of the bayou and canal at the foot of the levee were covered in ice.

Dad made a big pot of canned chilly and potent batches of coffee and Nippy for the group and as we warmed ourselves inside and out we recounted the day’s events again and again.

Slowly the crowd thinned out. The freeze was on and until it broke there wasn’t much point of staying at The Tupe. Howard and his crew mentioned trying the river but dad was having nothing to do with that.

“I promised my maker I’d never be fool enough to hunt that river again if he got me off of it alive last time I hunted it.” He told them. “That river is for brave hearted young men and fools.”

Dad and I cleaned up the camp after everyone was gone and drained the water pipes as best we could to try to prevent them from busting in the freeze.

I doubt I made it to the levee before I was asleep on the ride home and I don’t have the slightest recollection of dad carrying me into the house and putting me in bed. What I do recall though is waking up the next morning to find a brand new pair of shiny, green rubber chest waders on the foot locker at the end of my bed. I remember the salty taste of tears of joy that streamed down my face and the strange chemical smell as I pulled the waders on over my pajamas and stumbled own the stairs to show dad how well they fit. I remember knowing that I had graduated to The Majors and become a true waterfowler. And I know now that I had done so upon the shoulders of giants.