The Christmas duck

In last week’s column Ol’ Joe found a couple of the town’s citizens willing to pay him a $1.50 each for wild mallards, unplucked and not even de-entrailed. His landlady was gone, and the marshy pond behind his little shack was full of mallards. All I had to do was help blast ’em and split the money. If things went well, I figured on having enough to buy my grandpa a pair of socks for Christmas, some pipe tobacco for dad and another pint of perfume for mom. That money meant a lot to me.

My dad had thrown cold water on the whole plan by telling me that it was against federal law to shoot any duck without a $3 duck stamp and Joe didn’t have one. I don’t think Ol’ Joe had anything that cost $3. And the law said you couldn’t sell ducks.

And that is when the whole thing became a clandestine operation, right up there with selling your own moonshine, like Uncle Roy and Uncle Frank did. My 16-gauge Iver-Johnson had lots of experience whacking ducks that sat still or swam slow. Dad and I hunted ducks on the Piney every weekend and we got lots of them. Dad and I would be going out to hunt the river again that weekend, so Joe and I had to get our ducks on a Friday morning.

School was out for the holidays, so I tied my shotgun to my handle bars and headed for Joe’s little place about three and a half miles south of town, using the gravel back roads to get there. I did that often in the fall, when I hunted squirrels, so folks around town were use to seeing me peddling out of town with my shotgun and never gave it a second thought.

I had four shells, acquired by dad at Mr. Duff’s Western Auto store across from our pool hall. That’s the main reason Joe liked to go hunting with me. He never had any shells, and I had to always loan him one or two. So that day we huddled below the dam of the pond with two shells apiece, faced with one big problem. While indeed there were a million big ol’ greenhead mallards on that pond, they all were gathered on the shallow side, a good 60 yards from the dam where we waited in ambush.

You cannot sneak up on ducks, which rest at the open end of a pond, out of range of any spot you can select for hiding. We could wait and hope, or I could go around and spook them over Joe and he could blast away at the whole lot, or vice versa, with him sneakin’ and me doing the shooting. Then he had an idea. We discussed it. I could certainly throw a baseball-sized rock that far, and if it landed amongst the ducks it would scare them our way.

It was a heck of a throw. I watched the rock arc way up above tree level and lost sight of it as it came down. With hammers cocked, Ol’ Joe and I heard the roar of wings as my rock landed amongst them, and they came over us in a great cloud of waterfowl. A shot pattern spreads as it reaches 25 or 30 yards but those ducks weren’t 15 feet over us, and at that distance it is indeed possible to get a tightly packed pattern of shot into a 12-inch gap between ducks. That’s what happened, twice. When the ducks had left and we remained, nary a feather floated above that pond. I sat there for a moment, distressed, depressed, discouraged and duckless.

Ol’ Joe climbed to the bank above us and began to whoop and holler.

“By jiggers and by jory,” he hollered, “we got one!”

And indeed, 60 yards away on the shallow side of the pond, a greenhead mallard swam feebly in a small circle, with both eyes crossed and his tongue sticking out of his beak on one side. He must have been the most unlucky duck ever hatched. The way we figured it, that rock I threw came down right on his head.

Joe was gonna take it in town and sell it to Mr. McKnight over to the drug store, but he never could get his pickup started, he claimed. Truthfully, I think he ate the darn duck. I never saw a skinnier fellow than old Joe so I don’t guess a person could hardly begrudge him a good meal.

There wasn’t much Christmas money for me to spend that year. But thankfully, a pint of perfume and a pouch of pipe tobacco didn’t cost much back then. And really, grandpa had a whole bunch of socks.

That weekend as we stopped on a Piney River gravel bar for lunch with several mallards and a gadwall in the boat, I moaned about my lack of Christmas-present buying inability. Sitting on a log, Dad puffed on his pipe and sipped hot coffee. Then he said that the idea of Christmas presents came from the three wise men bringing gifts to the newborn Jesus.

He said that there were no gifts we could give Jesus now worth more than the gift of ourselves; our talents, our time and our faith. He stopped for a moment and then seeing my confusion about giving gifts to Jesus he told me about a Bible verse that said if a man gives to the least of those with us, then he gives that and more to the Lord Himself. Dad told me that the best gift I could give Mom and my sisters was just to wash dishes on occasion. Boy did that idea hurt! Even today I’d a heck of a lot rather buy perfume than wash dishes.

I surely must have made Jesus happy when I made it possible for Ol’ Joe to have baked duck for Christmas. When I told dad about all that to ease my conscience, he said maybe it would be best to take Ol’ Joe a box of shotgun shells for Christmas, and maybe another duck or two, even if it might be a violation of the magnatory bird act. For a kid who had only been 13 for a couple of months, I reckon I learned more that Christmas than any other I ever remember. I haven’t forgotten.

I have known Santa Claus ever since he started ordering my books, and while we were hunting caribou near the North Pole a few weeks back, he scolded me for not making our Panther Creek Youth Retreat a place for some needy kids or families at Christmas time.

He said, “Every year I pass right over your place on Panther Creek. There it is with a big beautiful cedar Christmas tree and all that room with beds and a huge dining room and kitchen and no kids in it. If you could make it available for some kids and their folks or counselors to come there and enjoy Christmas, I could just stop by and leave their toys and gifts there.”

“All you have to do is be there to read the Christmas story out of the Bible,” he said, “and help with the meals and the cookies and the candy,” Santa said. “Other folks can bring the kids that need to be there!”

Knowing he is right, I want to let everyone know that on Christmas Eve or Christmas night, even for several nights afterward, I have a great place for those youngsters who don’t have a great place to stay and enjoy themselves and wake up to find Christmas gifts between a big cedar tree.

The gifts will be there, and there are a bunch of nice soft beds and a kitchen full of breakfast fixings and Christmas dinner. And it is all free.

My phone number is 417-777-5227, if you know kids who need such a place.

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