This story has run on these pages in the past but, in the spirit of the holiday season, it seems like a good time for a re-read.
Sitting in the darkness, Ned looked up and marveled at how bright and close the stars seemed.
After all these years he was still mesmerized by how, out here in the marsh away from the lights of town, it seemed as if you could just reach up and touch them. One in particular, on the northern horizon, sparkled with a brilliance
that made the others look insignificant by comparison.
Off to his right a flock of coots began to stir, splashing and murmuring their cat-like sounds. Overhead, an occasional widgeon could be heard whistling as it winged its way downriver for the morning feeding.
To Ned, this was a magic time of day, one that nonhunters just couldn’t appreciate. “Why in the world would anyone in their right mind want to get out of a warm bed in the middle of the night and go out and sit in a cold, wet swamp just
to kill a duck or two?” He had long ago quit trying to explain, instead just smiling and saying something like, “Well, I don’t know; it does seem a little crazy doesn’t it?”
Ned’s old friend, Jake, had shared the duck hunting craziness. How many times over the years had the two of them sat in a blind in the dark, wondering at the majesty of the stars and laughing quietly at some corny joke? At the thought, Ned
felt a lump form in the bottom of his throat. He and Jake wouldn’t be sharing any more duck blinds or anything else; not since back during the summer when a sudden heart attack had taken his best friend.
When Jake died, a little piece of Ned went with him. It was the piece that made walking behind a brace of English Setters on a frosty winter morning, or sitting in a duck blind in the dark, special. In fact, he hadn’t planned on going hunting today,
he hadn’t been all season. But, with Martha going with her church group to visit rest homes and the girls all busy with their families, he knew it would be awfully quiet around the house, too quiet. Besides, the Christmas Eve hunt was something
Ned and Jake had done for more than thirty years, even in the sixties and seventies when the ducks had been sort of scarce. It was tradition and Jake had always been big on tradition.
Sitting alone in the darkness of the marsh, however, Ned wasn’t sure that coming here had been the best thing to do. It was awfully lonesome. Maybe he should just pick up the decoys and go on home. Before he could process that
thought, though, Ned heard something moving up the path that wound through the tall grass. Too big for a deer – an image of some of the black bears that had become so numerous in the area flashed before his eyes. Whatever it was, it was
coming right to the blind! Ned fumbled for his flashlight and, hitting the button,saw not a bear, but a very surprised boy standing there.
The boy looked to be about fourteen, maybe a little older. Clad in hip boots that were more patches than rubber, shouldering a burlap bag and clutching an old pump shotgun, he was obviously going duck hunting. The question was, “where?”
When he had first climbed into his blind, Ned had noticed a few spent shell casings that looked fairly recent. Someone apparently had been using his spot, probably figuring it had been abandoned. He hadn’t given it much thought, at least until now.
Standing in the beam of the flashlight, the boy had what Jake used to call the “deer in the headlights look.” He hadn’t expected anyone to be there and wasn’t sure what his next step should be. The man was almost certainly the owner of the
blind, maybe the land, and probably didn’t think much of some young’un hunting in his spot. He might even call the game warden, turn him in for trespassing.
Ned broke the ice. “Hey, how ‘ya doing? Gonna do some hunt’n?”
The boy stammered, “Yessir, uh, I thought I might set up on that next point, uh, see if I could draw a bluebill or something.” He motioned upriver toward Mitchell’s Point. Ned knew the boy was just looking for a way out, that he had
never thought about hunting the point until now, that he had intended to use Ned’s blind. He also knew, if the boy tried to wade across the small channel that lay between where they were and the shoreline that led to the point, he would be in
over his hip boots and get soaked to the waist, or worse.
“Son, the wind’s blown the water in pretty good. Why don’t you just throw your decoys out there with mine and you can hunt right here. There’s room enough for two.”
The boy hesitated a moment. “Well, if you don’t mind. I got kind of a late start and it’s gonna be get’n light soon. I appreciate it.”
As he watched the boy carefully set his half dozen plastic decoys out, Ned thought about the times he and Jake had done the same thing themselves when they were no older than the boy. He thought about how they scrimped and saved to buy
a dozen decoys from the Herter’s catalog, and risked drowning to save one when it pulled loose from its line and went bobbing off down the river.
He thought about the time Jake ordered some “Insta-Duck” decoys from some off-the-wall company. They were collapsible rubber things that were supposed to inflate automatically when you tossed them in the water. They did, sort of. And
they sort of looked like ducks – if you used a lot of imagination. The problem was you didn’t have long to imagine anything about them because they almost immediately began to deflate and looked like a bunch of huge condoms floating
around on the surface. Ned didn’t remember having much luck using the Insta-Ducks but he did recollect himself and Jake sitting in the blind and laughing about them until they cried.
Watching the boy getting his gear ready, Ned decided that Jake would probably approve of him letting the young hunter take his spot in the blind. Even though he had never had any of his own, Jake always liked kids and had a special way with
By the time the boy had his decoys arranged and had gotten settled down, it was legal shooting time. A few birds, probably teal, had buzzed the spread earlier but Ned was very particular about doing things right. He had never been one for
shooting over the limit or before legal time. It just wasn’t the thing a sportsman did.
Then, they heard a few shots rumble far down the river and Ned spotted a trio of widgeon swinging in from the left. They had their wings set and were obviously looking for somewhere to land.
“Alright, there they are,” he whispered. “Let ‘em come around again and when I give the word you take the ones on your side.”
Ned gave a few tweets on his call just as a little come-on and, as the ducks locked their wings a second time and started to reach for the water with their feet, he barked, “Alright, take ‘em.” In one motion, he was up, the Browning swinging
in front of a drake that had realized his mistake and peeled off to the left. As the duck fell, Ned was vaguely aware of shots to his right, several of them. But, when he looked that way, he saw the other two widgeon gathering height as they winged back out over the river.
“Dang, I thought I had one,” the boy mumbled sheepishly as he pushed another shell into his shotgun. The gun, a well-worn old Mossberg, was exactly like one Ned had owned in his younger years. The boy’s expression was also one he was familiar with.
“Take your time on the next ones. Pick out one bird, swing out in front of him and stay with him until he’s down. You can’t lead a duck too much.” It was the same advice Ned’s dad had given him a long time ago. “I reckon I’d better see if I
can get to that bird before he floats away.”
“Why don’t you use a dog?” the boy asked, wondering what he’d do if the old man fell out in the river.
“Well, I used to have one, a good one,” Ned replied. “Ol’ Buck, a Lab. But he died about a year or so ago and I just haven’t gotten another one.” Actually Ned had planned to buy another pup during the summer so he’d be able to start him in
the fall but, after Jake passed away, somehow he just never could bring himself to do it.
The ducks weren’t coming to the decoys as well as it seemed they should to Ned, but then they never did. He and the boy sat there and talked about ducks and shotguns and which dogs make the best retrievers, while they watched widgeon,
teal, gadwall and tundra swans trading up and down the river.
“Why don’t you have a dog?” Ned asked at one point.
“Momma said we can’t afford one, at least not a retriever,” the boy answered.
“She said we could get one from the pound but I want a duck dog so I reckon I’ll just wait.” Ned noticed there hadn’t been any mention of the boy’s dad. From comments the youngster had made, it appeared his father wasn’t around and hadn’t
been for a long time.
The two hunters’ chat was interrupted by a swish of wings directly overhead.
Instinctively, they both crouched.
“Mallards,” Ned hissed. “And I don’t think they saw us. If they come back around, wait until they set their wings and then take one on your side. Remember, take your time and get a good lead.”
The mallards, two drakes, did swing back to the decoys. To Ned it seemed like slow motion. He pulled above one of the greenheads that was trying to gain altitude, squeezed the trigger, and watched the duck splash among the decoys.
Looking to his right, he saw the boy swing on the other bird, leaning forward as he did so. The old Mossberg thundered and, wonders of wonders, the mallard crumbled, dead in the air. The chicken wire/marsh grass blind the boy leaned
against also started to collapse. Ned lunged toward him, grabbing the boy by the back of his suspenders and saving him from toppling headfirst into the river.
Later the two hunters sat and laughed about what almost happened. Ned told the story about the time Jake had done the same thing, except he had missed the duck with three shots and was still trying to shuck a shell into his gun’s chamber as he fell forward. Ned had saved him too, by the back of his waders.
As they gathered up the decoys, Ned said, “Son, you look like you might take care of a blind and I could use some help keeping this one up. If you want to, we could hunt this spot together. You want to do that?”
“Yessir, I’d like that,” the boy answered eagerly. “And, I’ll take care of it, too.”
Ned saw a gleam in the boy’s eyes that reminded him of another youngster he’d known a long time ago.
“You can load your stuff in my truck and I’ll stop by and check with your momma and make sure it’s alright with her,” Ned said.
A few hours later, Ned sat in his easy chair, a cup of coffee on the end table beside him and “Miracle On 34 th Street” on the television. He looked at the screen, but his mind was somewhere else. Finally, nodding his head, he got up, pulled a
card from his file and went to the phone.
“Horace, this is Ned Reilly. Yeah, how’re you doing? Look, Horace, you still have any of those pups out of your Lab left? Two males – good, I want one.” Ned paused for a second. “I tell you what, on second thought, I’ll take ‘em both; a
friend of mine wants one too. I’ll be over first thing in the morning to pick ‘em up.”
Walking over to the window, Ned looked out and noticed that it was starting to snow. He smiled and whispered, “Merry Christmas Jake.”
Ed Wall can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-671-3207. His web site is www.edwalloutdoors.com