The Last Hunt

The Boys had been making the trip for close to fifty years. They had left a lot of rubber on the road.   This trip was like the others.  It took a while before they slowly engaged in any type of depth.  Reacquainting takes time.  When they were northbound, change softened tongues and thoughts. Youthful they became with weathered attitudes.  Acquired daily habits slipped off by the mile.  Their eyes narrowed and became watchful.  The day slowly darkened.

Thirty years earlier the three had joined Robert John’s Father who commanded a station wagon towing a Datsun mini truck; covered flatbed engorged with the trappings of decoys and gear.  It had been the first for Younger and the third for Smith.  Robert John was making his six or seventh since permitted to pull the trigger.   He had learned to shoot with his dad and uncle on a shallow water lake which produced panfish and ducks.  But it was the wheat fields of Saskatchewan where his fine shooting eye was developed. On this trip, they had come back with the car and truck topped with ducks, mallards mostly, and geese, the Canadian variety in majority.  All were secured with lines of rope.  Many eyes caught the moving feathered vehicle!   That trip secured the blood bond of hunting for the three.   The bond had produced a northern hunting continuum, interrupted only by”life.”  The wheat fields in their golden luster, especially as the sun rose or set, captivated.  The endless sky with occasional clouds interrupting the blue spectrum provided distilled distinction.   The majesty was not lost on them, but the necessity of “dark spots,” moving birds, was paramount.  They came to hunt, together.  The beauty framed.

Now, as the years dripped off they were not as enamored with the pull of the trigger as much as they were with finding the location of birds.  To know they could still “do it,” as location of birds was necessary for harvest.  But the need of a body count was not what it once had been.   When ducks were found, they were content to let the day write itself.   And it never failed to produce a story that profoundly affected them for that period of time. Memories were great, but it was the occasion of being there, in the moment, that evoked the feelings that were youthful in anticipation yet understanding of age.

Robert John had produced two children, Smith two, and Younger two.  No common design intended.  All now were off doing what young ones do, in pursuit of who and what they would and could be.  That period of seeking. Though a couple had taken the trip with the aged ones, early on, those were rare occurrences.  Now that they were older (if they asked) the trip was closed.  This was their trip; Robert John, Smith and Younger. Friends from childhood.

Robert John and Smith had lived by the tracks, the freight train line running east – west just behind their houses.  Working class houses, where children played in the fields spotted with trees; trees that became bases or goal lines. Imagination.  Where neighborhood “gangs” took on each other to command their streets.  The lake for hockey was four blocks north. The rivalry continued there.  The hunting was family orientated, removed from the streets.  Robert John was immersed in it.  Smith came in later. Others of the street took aim at light posts.

Younger joined the group when the winter had brought the various groups together to play ice hockey for the town, removed from the lake and daily blood to the rink by the school.   The town had grown up around two large lakes and the original town which pushed north to the next lake was referred to as the North side.  The separation of the North side to the developments south of the lakes was significant.  There was little mixing. Almost two separate towns.

It was to the west, where a small lake stunted growth that Younger lived in a push of suburbia that never gained much swagger.  It just did not have the blood lines of the town’s history and lacked the edge that the North side maintained.  Younger liked and needed the edge.  Especially for sports.  He preferred to cross the tracks.  The Ridgeway street boys took him on as one of theirs and no one said much about it.  But he was an exception.  The three became friends.

As the truck closed on the border, darkness engulfed them.  Engagingly “ribbing” as they could be, they knew not to make any mistakes with the border guards.  None.  They had to unload everything for inspection only one time, but it was hours before they were able to cross.  They chose to not let it happen again.  The sky was pitch black while the building screamed brightness.  Their tired eyes hurt.  They were grateful to be waved through after a brief declaration of transported items.  Winnipeg would be approached by early morning.

They had changed the logistics of the trip ten years earlier.  Time, family, and jobs marked a new order to continue.  The adjustments were the narrowing down of a week trip to four days and moving the destination from Saskatchewan to Manitoba, about a twelve-hour difference in travel. Though they left many fine contacts in Saskatchewan, they had made new ones that were essential to hunt the smaller farms and towns west of Winnipeg.  For housing to drop their packs and use as central control they found the Mojo Motel.  And for reference of hunt possibilities, they had run across Derek.   Derek, having lived in the area had significant connections, which enabled them, if fowl were located, to begin hunting that evening. The nature of the hunt had moved from geese to mallards, though they would “pound” any goose who came calling.   Greenly was a small town with a gas pump and shriveled downtown.  To the “boys” it mattered not. A gas station, a warm meal if possible as well as a real bed was all that were needed.  The Mojo provided the measure of softness.  The past of sleeping in a shed, three to a played out mattress was gone.  The hand digging of pits in the middle of the night were swept away with snoring sleep.  The hunt had necessarily moved to convenience, but ducks were ducks and one still had to locate them, get into a position that allowed opportunity, and then get bifocals steadied to get shots off.   Limits had ceased to matter.  It was the opportunity that took on the majesty of the hunt.  And here they had not lost their touch, learned from so many years with shotgun in hand.

Smith was the one with the binocular eyes.  His amazing ability to see “miles” in the sky and detect the flight of dots had not wavered, nor his appetite to get to the basics, kill ducks, and relish in the aftermath with a cold “pork chop” in hand.  Growing up two doors down from Robert John had brought them physically close, and their love of the hunt even closer.  Fact was Smith was benched the last three games of his junior year football season because he had gone on the annual hunt.  His discipline accepted this just as he accepted the fact that he told his coach what he was going to do. His blood pumped harder in the fields of Canada then the striped one at the high school.

Robert John was the mystic.  Yet he also had the steadiness of measured motivation to follow his heart.  He married his high school sweetheart. They managed to find firm footing when nature said marriage was right. Where Smith would be firmly on the right measure of societal norms, Robert John found himself putting a foot over the line to the left.  One could account it to his father’s union affiliation and thus upbringing, but it was more to his measure for the downtrodden, the little guy, which produced in him an affiliation of liberal accreditation.  To his personal ability, he could amazingly produce friends anywhere without pretense, as Smith could. Both were immeasurably likeable.  Their connectability was different but consistent in its sameness.  Some how the “wiring” worked wonderfully.

Younger was the add-on, or perhaps add in.  From across the tracks.  He had bipolar tendencies, but the lines did not descend to deep depression but rather from normal tendencies to activity that seemingly bounced off walls. His fondness for fun over reached responsible life unless leashed. Marriage had kept the bounces controlled.  And a sprinkling of age.  He could be articulate one moment and audibly insane the next.  But he ran with the two Ridgeway street boys through the years.  He ended up the one that was in their mix more than any other.  He too was hard to dislike.

All three could hunt, and hunt hard.   Now they had turned the corner, hit that magic number of 65 and measured downsizing.   All had faced trials, as life painted them.  Buried children, surgeries, implants, stents; They accepted and lived.  None dwelled.  Each just kept living.  And their autumn had come, just as the season of a year, quickly and un-spurious in manner.

They knew that a trip such as this was getting to be a different kind of “hard.” This was something that brought all up short.  The understood “hard.”  They embraced it.  If the success they enjoyed on the hunt had been not traipsed with hardness, they would have felt cheated.  But now they did not want that piece to be altogether there, in truth.   And with this they understood, with the early light beginning to embrace the sky and the lights of Winnipeg showing soft in the distance, they were on their last trip.  It did not have to be said.  They knew, but pretended not.   The hunt was before them.  All three were watching the thin grey sky line become clearer.

Derek had located a field with a draw holding water.  It was perhaps 300 yds out from a tree line in a wheat field.  A sweet distance for old legs. And it was only five miles from the Mojo.  “Hard” had softened a little.   As the boys pulled into the motel just past noon, he met them with the news, but not before the preliminaries.  The beer was cold!  It was here, in room 102 where the field of promise was described.  Permission had been granted.   Juices began to flow.  All began to ready for the evening hunt.

Derek had his measure of obstacles, but he kept on the hunt as it produced the adrenaline that made him want life.  And he had become more than just the casual acquaintance to the boys, especially Robert John.  Now they were together, readying up to shoot some green heads.  Their recurring pains began to ebb away and they felt the same thrill that always accompanied the hunt, especially the first shoot.  After driving many miles they were anxious to let loose.  Have the chance.  They checked gear and loaded up into Derek’s duck killing machine, an older Dodge four door pickup with ducks painted in its entirety. It was time to hunt.

The fourth morning found the four crouched low behind shrub, perhaps thirty yards from the water.  It was a field pond found scouting the day before.  That first evening had produced a nice limit of grand “red legs,” an affectionate name for the birds that came down late season; all mature, green textured necks and stark red replacing the normal orange color of legs.  Big birds.  All drakes the boys pulled out of the sky.  And the “hard” had been softened.  The next day they tried the same pond and came up empty. Scouting now prevailed and the two trucks separated  to find opportunities. Here miles were racked up as each took their time to be as precise of location, if any, and then seek to secure permission.  It was the part of the hunt that many tired of. They found pleasure.  Semi down time to engage. Robert John always jumped in with Derek on the scouts. Smith and Younger partnered up.  The mix was right.  It just took time and luck to find the places birds were using and then getting the right to hunt.  It was not automatic, nor did they expect it to be.  Over the years they had found wonderful opportunities but for some reason or another were denied.  Then there were those hunts that stood grand in the mind.

The second and third days had produced birds, but nothing like the first night.   And the places hunted were more difficult to get to by foot, especially with the frost and the wetness that prevailed with the arrival of snow.  But the snow also brought more birds. They just needed the right combinations to fall into place.  Smith saw something moving just above the horizon as the sun began setting, just over a knoll in a field west of an alfalfa field.  It was a dirt field, so he knew that if what he saw were ducks, there had to be water attracting them.   He and Younger got out the binoculars and began to train their sights on the knoll.  Soon, Smith before Younger, both saw what they hoped, ducks dipping down low across the field and being lost from sight. The did not emerge on the other side.  The light was diminishing more. Smith knew they did not have much time, so he began moving as quickly as he could to the side road near the field.   As he drove, more and more ducks began to plummet to the far side of the hump.  They knew that there was water.  They marked the location by memory and headed off to gain permission.

Derek and York had gone out fifteen miles, crisscrossing the matrix of farms. The found groundwater and slew, but nothing which indicated shootable populations, just small flocks shifting about on the waters.  As darkness settled  they got the call from Younger that he and Smith had found ducks and gained permission.  They agreed to meet at the Mojo.

Though they did not have a full limit for all of them combined, they had ducks and a few geese in hand.  A nice little shoot would fill tags.  As they warmed themselves in the motel and choked down sardines with crackers chased with beer, they were gratified that the first hunt had been successful. The following two days found the quest fulfilling.  The grind they exposed themselves to with limited results dampened not the hunt. But they did hope to get one more shoot in.  Tomorrow morning would be the last opportunity.

A serene melancholy seemed to seep into the room.  Tiredness combined with beer and anchored to reality made the room one which took on greater meaning.  Though nothing was said, there was a calm realization that the next morning would be special, no matter what prevailed.

Daylight came late, as the wind whipped snow blocked sight.  Slowly, laying just behind the knoll, the boys began to get their morning eyes. It was at that moment that they heard the “swish” flit by, followed by a “swoosh.”  Wings, in the air.  Lots of wings.  Smith checked his watch. Five minutes.  He now could see the birds, coming in small but steady flights.  Rockets of feathers, cupped wings out front.  When he said ready, all four pushed up to kneeling level.  At the appointed time they commenced to fill the sky with steel.

It was over in an hour, maybe less.  The mallards had come straight into the pond as if on a string.  The boys only stayed an extra hour to see if by chance some geese might want in on the “fun.”  None came.  It was time to go. Finding their ducks was a little harder this year as the last of the dogs had died two years earlier.  But they found all but one.  They had secured their limits.  When they reached the trucks, Robert John did what he had done every year.  He placed the ducks on the ground in military fashion and brought out the ones packed in the back of the truck. They were not as handsome in death as in life, but the striking colors did justice to the “take.” Small smiles looked down on the harvest. It was a good indeed.

It wasn’t a fashionable goodbye, just the usual pictures, handshakes with man hugs and the packing of gear.  Perhaps the weather played a part in the departure being so narrow focused.  Or that no one wanted to linger with the thought of being “done.”  It mattered not.  They knew and respected the hunt and each other.  Derek got in the duck truck and waved a salute out the window.  The other three stuck gloved hands skyward and held for just a fraction longer.  The three friends packed the truck as the snow began to come harder.  They looked out at the field and saw flocks of Canadian geese cupping wings and dropping from the heavens toward the pond.  They looked at each other and laughed.  Quickly packing the truck, Smith took the wheel with Robert John slipped in by his side. Younger sat upright in the back and watched the geese.  They headed East.

The Canadian trip did end that year.  Derek was killed in a truck accident when some hopped up teenagers caught him broadside on a gravelled Saskatchewan road.  He died instantly.  Robert John and Smith made the funeral.  Robert John brought a framed picture of the last hunt, the one taken in the snow.  It was placed on the wooden coffin by Derek’s wife.

Smith battled cancer for another ten years and finally succumbed to the big C when he rejected the planned treatments.  He chose to travel the world, a dream that he had always entertained.  It turned into a great adventure.  He came home after ten months to his home where, surrounded by his family he left.  By the bed was the last hunt picture.

Robert John retired the next year and he and his wife moved to Florida.  He took up sea fishing and because of an off-chance of meeting one of the best guides in the Sarasota region, he took his fresh water skills and caught many redfish, trout, and grouper in the bays and inlets.  He died of a heart attack while resting in between fishing outings.   He came home to be buried with family.  His son placed the last hunt picture in the casket just before they closed it to begin the ceremony.

And Younger pushed them all in the ground, but he never knew it, excepting Derek.  Younger began to show signs of dementia when he turned 67 and it progressed rapidly. Smith saw him as often as he could before he died. Robert John saw him when he and his wife came up in the Spring to spend time with family.  Younger hung on and passed when he was 93.  He outlived them all, but could not do them honor.  Or if  he did, it was not pronounced. Once, an aid thought heard him say “shoot.”  Another time “get down.”  But the utterance was muddled so it could not said for certain. They found him one day in bed, his mouth open and a crumpled picture in his hand.  The last hunt.

The last picture taken, wind swirling with snow and the boys kneeling just behind a limit of “red legs.”  It had been favorable and quietly compassionate. This they had known.  And the treasure was marked in years; together in the Provinces of Canada; big sky, panoramic scenes and ducks. They had been blessed.

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