Snapshots and Stories:
One gray November afternoon I stand at the window watching the mass of steel gray clouds sweep eastward across the rolling Missouri hills, listening to the wind roaring in the leafless trees, thinking of ducks and geese letting on my favorite lake north of town as Hattie walks into the dining room. Gertrude is playing Beethovens Pastoral in the parlor, The Storm.
"Operator called just now. Said that Mrs. Bailey is feeling much better" she said with a smile. "You get ready for tomorrow and I will say a prayer for no late calls tonight."
Today was Friday, just five short days away from Thanksgiving and I did not yet have enough wild game at the local general store for our holiday dinner. Lee Young will graciously keep all our game for these important meals in his freezer, mainly because he is one of our principle guests for holidays. This year was like the rest in that I am very busy, but different in that I had not much will to hunt. Besides, my mind was on my patients.
"Daddy, where did you go last night? Mother said that Mrs. Bailey was sick. Will she be better?" young Isabelle asked. Just then Hattie again walked in.
"You dont worry you little head about such things, Isabelle. Your father helped that lady and she will be just fine."
My mind went to thoughts of mallards, wings locked, orange feet dangling over our spread of decoys.
"Should I call Jack to help get a horse ready or take the car this time?" The thought of the Ford getting stuck in the snow or not starting troubled me, if only because I will not be able to meet a patients needs. But the car will travel much faster, reducing my time in the cold air.
"Take your horse this time. You can leave tonight after dinner, hunt in the morning, and be back before supper tomorrow evening." Hattie said with an expressionless face as she walked from the kitchen to the parlor to check on Gertrudes piano lessons.
After putting on my greatcoat I walk down to the barn to check on the livestock. Jack is already in the barn getting the strong steed ready for my trip. I thank him for coming on such short notice but he reminds me of our conversation earlier in the week about this very trip.
"I figured with the snow and cold weather you would not want to take the Ford. This old guy is much more reliable." Jack says as he lifts the heavy, worn leather saddle onto the horses back. "What are you looking to bag this trip? I hear geese are down, maybe even the Canadas?"
My thoughts flash two years ago when Lee and I sat huddled in a small-make shift blind on a cold December morning. We had been looking for some northern mallards, always defined by their exceptionally orange feet, when a group of low flying geese appeared on the horizon. We didnt move, wanting to look up but knowing the glare of our faces might spook the great gray and black fowl.
The howling north wind had pushed them off their resting place and low gray clouds kept them from their usual lofty perch in the sky. The bitter cold air that almost seared the lungs with every inspiration drove bits of snow at our blind, but we remained motionless, waiting, hoping, shaking.
Lee was cursing himself under his breath for not buying a judas goose to go with his duck. It was common practice to purchase a domesticated female mallard duck, the louder of the two genders, for use as a live decoy. When the ducks grew near a hunter simply places his live decoys cage in view of the approaching flock. The live decoy would do the rest, calling to her relatives with highballs, feeder calls, and resting chuckles, enticing them to land.
Sometimes exceptionally good wing shots would even allow there live decoy to fly up into the flock and lead them down into range of the shotguns. But many judas have been mistakenly shot in the ensuing melee, including one of Lees ducks three years ago. Being so far from a major flyway like the Mississippi or Missouri River, Lee found no reason to purchase a live goose for decoying. Geese simply did not frequent these parts of the state, except for this Saturday morning.
We sat, dumbfounded, wondering how we would lure this flock of fifteen into our small spread of 18 duck decoys without any goose calls or even decoys resembling the great bird. We could do nothing and decided to wait.
The great geese were low, looking for shelter from the driving snow, passing our position once, then deciding to circle, a sign they were interested. We sat, heads down, peering up from under the bills of our brown caps, watching the flock circle two more times. Finally, the last goose broke ranks from the traditional V and started his descent. Wings cupped, landing gear down, he pitched his body and wings vertically in an attempt to lose altitude. The rest quickly followed, pitching from side to side, descending, big black feet ready to hit the water. I moved my hand toward the reliable double barrel as Lee eased off his safety.
We stood, taking aim as the geese, which were only two feet from the water, struggled to escape. Four quick shots rang out, but only two birds fell from the sky. We congratulated one another for our average shooting and outstanding luck. Not many groups of geese that large will approach a pond with no sign of similar fowl or even a call from a familiar voice. But these did, and we were not about to question divine providence.
The ride to Lees place took about ten minutes, ten very cold, bone chilling minutes across town. He is glad to see me, glad to see that I did not place my trust in that "mechanical horse" as he calls it.
"We will travel slower, but we will get there by horse!" he states proudly, sticking his chest out. "The missus has packed us some good food for the trip, we best be shoving off."
Lees cabin was only fifteen miles northwest of town, just off the Chariton river, but the trip would be a slow one with all this snow. We arrive at the small log cabin shortly after dark, quickly make a fire and return outside to unpack the animals. Our hands are numb from the cold. We finished unpacking and put the horses to feed in the small withered barn whose paint has long ago worn completely away. We are just getting warm and ready to start dinner when the door bursts open.
"Thought I would never make it." a familiar voice grumbles. "North wind started pushing hard about 20 minutes ago. Could move some new ducks into the area tomorrow."
Earl Mathewson, a banker from Lancaster, steps in the cabin with his sixteen-year old son Carl. Earls features are delicate, his build slim, almost too frail to carry his greatcoat and pack. Carl is taller, burly with broad shoulders and large hands. Both have dark hair, although the fathers is receding, and dark green eyes. Carl works as a stock-boy at the local general store and loves to rodeo. Riding broncos is his favorite, steer wrestling second.
The evening brings tales of hunts past, whisky, roasted chicken (freshly killed today by Hattie), and more tall tales. Earl and Lee share the cost of the cabin, alternating weekends with their families in the spring and summer. Lee invites me to hunt ducks in the fall, until the pond freezes, then we sometimes try to hunt the river unless the weather becomes too bitter.
"We better wax the coats tonight, I know its gonna be a cold one tomorrow." suggests Carl. We agree and put the can of hardened wax next to the fire.
I have brought my hunting coat. The others leave their coats in the cabin for the fall, knowing they will get the most use from them here. The heated wax is applied with a small brush, with each hunter being careful not to apply the wax too thin or too thick. Not enough and your coat will not keep out the rain and snow, causing you to grow wet and cold. Too much and you cannot move your arms enough to wield a gun. Hats are coated next and Carl suggests trying a pair of gloves.
"Nonsense," Replies Earl, "your hands can survive a little pond water. Did I raise a sissy, or are you a man?"
Carl does not respond, only looking at the floor, gloves in hand.
"Give the boy a break, Earl. I remember you suggesting such a trick a couple of years ago during that nasty blizzard." Lee said, being careful not to disturb the fine balance between father and son. "Im thinking of waxing a pair of my own gloves for a try. Who knows, we may end up inventing something all duck hunters might want to buy."
Lees thoughts of making money of such an idea encouraged the boy and lessened the sting on his father. Together they waxed gloves, coats and hats, talking of even trying rubber on boots and gloves. Finishing with our wax, we decided to inspect guns and shells. If the paper shells get wet they will not fit into the shotgun.
Early that night it started to snow, the temperature dropped, and with the increasing wind came the colder temperatures Earl had warned of. Four oclock in the morning and I can not sleep. I crack the door, hoping to catch a glimpse of the day to come, but see only darkness, hear only the howl of the cold north wind. I pull the collar up on my greatcoat and step outside. Wind from the north, gusting, must be around thirty degrees. The stock tank near the cabin has a thin sheet of ice covering the water. What will our pond look like this day?
"Couldnt sleep either, eh Frank?" a voice calls from the door, startling me.
"Hell, Lee. You startled me. Didnt know you were up," I respond, "looks like a cold one today." I turn and walk back into the cabin, feeling its warmth.
"Should push the ducks down from Iowa. I just hope some want to spend a little quality time on our pond," Lee said pushing the door shut and placing another lump of coal in the stove. "Ill get breakfast started. Wake up Carl and get him on them horses."
Breakfast is makeshift omelets made from the carefully packed and transported eggs from Hatties chicken house. Lees cooking is sloppy, but tasty. A little cheese and mushrooms add to the taste of the great plate of eggs. Some fried potatoes and fresh bread finish off the meal in grand fashion. Duck hunting requires fueling up for the long, hard day in the cold. Missing a good breakfast could mean frost-bite, or worse, pneumonia.
We gather equipment and saddle the horses in the dark. Getting to the pond and setting out decoys before daybreak is important when hunting waterfowl. The ducks will fly at the first hint of light approaching from the east. Some will head south for warmer weather, others will seek only more open water and food. Lee has been careful to leave several rows of corn standing around the pond to show an approaching flock our pond will make a good breakfast stop.
The cabin sits on a hill just off the Chariton river to avoid the spring floods. Lee had the pond made eight years ago expressly for waterfowl hunting, but it doubles as a catfish pond. It lies just a half mile north of the cabin, well within walking distance, but carrying the decoys warrants taking along the horses. They also serve as emergency transportation. Three years ago Earl fell through some broken ice in late November. Without the horse to take him back to the cabin he might have lost his toes.
The wind blows harder now, the sky is black and we can hardly see where the trail is. We take turns riding our own horses and leading the horse that carries the decoys. The half mile seems like ten with the wind in our faces but we finally reach the pond.
Carl and Earl have made two make shift blinds from the surrounding cattails the weeks before. They are growing ragged so we quickly gather more tails to spruce them up. Lee places the decoys in the small dingy he keeps on the pond and rows to place our blocks. It is still so dark only a faint shadow of Lee in the boat is visible against the wrinkled mirror like finish that is the water.
Carl takes the horses to a small grove of trees to wait. Earl and I climb into the left blind. "Good thing the wind is at our backs today," he shakes, lighting a cigar. "The ducks will want to land into the wind, forcing them to come right into us. Want one." He says, holding up a dark brown tobacco. I nod and he helps me light the cigar in the violent wind.
"Tastes good. What has hunting been like this year? I think this is my first outing of the season."
"Not bad. Shot a bunch of teal in the early going. They were everywhere. Mallards didnt start coming down until late October. Did you hear that they are thinking of ending the spring season. Damn politicians always trying to step into a mans life and cramp his style. They already passed legislation outlawing duck feathers in womens hats. Now how are Carl and I supposed to finance our little hunting trips if we cannot get money for the feathers."
I shake my head in disbelief, pulling another long draw from the cigar.
"I hear they want to outlaw the judas. What a crying shame. Good thing Lee brought his favorite hen today. We will probably need her." He continues puffing on his cigar as Lee finishes with the decoys. Carl returns joining his father in the left blind as I join Lee in the right.
The sky grows lighter and the clouds are one great gray blanket over the landscape, low and dark. North winds howl at our backs, waving the cat tails and rippling the water. Lees paper decoys are expensive, but float gracefully on the waves.
"What do you think," Lee says, lighting up a cigar for himself. "Kind of gets the blood pumping doesnt it."
I inspect two paper shot shells and place them into my gun, leaving the double barrel open and across my lap as three teal swoop over our heads, crashing into the decoys.
"Patient" Lee whispers. "We will get more than that .think of these as more live decoys." He pulls his cap down. "Do you think we should let the judas call them?"
"Let her wait," I say, "they may come in without her."
Soon, several flocks of larger Mallards can be seen on the horizon, low, looking for the shelter of a small pond like ours. We motion to Earl and Carl and they hunker down behind the reed blind. The ducks do not circle, the wind is too strong, instead, lock wings and lower their feet.
"Take em!" Lee yells as we jump from our hiding place, guns blazing. Five ducks from that group fall lifeless into the decoys. Carl moves toward the boat to retrieve them when Lee motions for him to be still. Two more groups are fast approaching, but Carl is standing in the open. If he moves or looks up, they will surely flare.
They do not, overlooking the hunched figure and landing in our decoys. Again the guns ring out, this time only four fall into the decoys and Carl is quick to retrieve them. Several flocks pass by as he returns in the boat, but today will there will be more.
The cold wind and driving snow have pushed a large concentration of ducks from Iowa into Missouri. And we are sitting in front of a stopping point for the fowl. A small grove of trees on the ponds northeast corner provides little break from the wind, but enough to entice weary ducks to our waters.
"Today is one of those days when we cant do anything wrong." Lee says, shivering, his hands growing cold. "I should have never brought the judas today. She isnt going to get much work today."
Several more flocks of ducks approach, including spoonbills, pintails and the prized canvasback. Carl is interested in selling the feathers and the canvasback fetch the best price, along with pintail. We run out of shells before the ducks stop flying and are forced to pick up our decoys by 10:00 AM.
The ride back to the cabin is cold, but our adrenaline is pumping and our spirits are high.
"I will never forget a day like this one" says Carl.
"I hear you." his father responds. "I cant remember a day when the shooting was a fast and as furious. We could have been netting them today and still came home with quite a bag."
The return to the cabin means a warm fire, hot coffee, and more food. The final duck count numbers forty seven.
"Six canvasbacks, two shovlers, fifteen pintail and the remaining Mallards." Carl says, returning from hanging the ducks on the porch.
"How many hens in that bunch?" I ask.
"About half. Do you have any problem with my keeping the feathers for sale in town?"
"Not one bit. If you come home with me, I will have Hattie and the kids pluck and clean them. You can take all you want of feathers and duck for you and your father. Im sure Lee will want a couple too, eh?"
"Sure" Lee responds, lighting up a cigar. "That Hattie sure is a good woman."
We smoke and drink until mid afternoon, celebrating our good luck. Days like this on
the water are few and far between. But today our luck was good and the bag full.
A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Master of Arts