April 3
by Bill Booth

Sunlight reflected off the blue metal, and its smooth, stained wood felt like silk under my fingers. I closed my eyes and sighed with pleasure as the clean smell of gun oil floated to my nose. It was a thing of beauty. The single thing I wanted most when I was ten years old was finally mine: a classic Red Ryder BB gun.

My love affair had begun several months earlier when I saw one displayed in the front window of Vincent’s Hardware Store. Following that initial discovery, I was compelled to stop, admire, eventually to covet that fine example of rifle weaponry.

But the price was $4.50, an enormous sum to a fifth grade kid who lived in a settler’s cabin on the far side of the Missouri River in the rural community of Sulphur, Louisiana. Never mind that the cabin was actually a two bedroom rent house, and the Missouri River was really a drainage ditch that ran beside our cabin. I dreamed of becoming a frontiersman, independent and self-sufficient … perhaps a buffalo hunter or mountain man.

One fortunate day, I saw an ad in a magazine for an opportunity to make easy money by selling White’s Cloverine Salve. I had no idea what the salve was used for, but the adults in Sulphur apparently did, because I sold enough to buy the BB gun in only a couple of weeks. I proudly carried my new possession home in its original cardboard box. My parents were proud too. If they’d had the money to spare, they would have bought the gun for me, but money was sometimes scarce in the early fifties.

Saturday was my favorite day of the week. Around sunup, I would bounce out of bed, dress in my buckskins … called blue jeans and a tee shirt by others … and set out along the River. I had recently acquired a small, much-used, army surplus rucksack from my older brother, who no longer had any use for it because he was off to college. A rucksack is a small back pack made of heavy canvas with lots of little pockets and extra straps on the outside. In it I loaded provisions for my expeditions. The journeys were always expected to be long and difficult, so I would take only bare necessities … enough for the duration of the current trip. An army-surplus canteen full of water, salt and pepper, matches, extra BB’s and my Boy Scout knife about completed the list. I didn’t drink coffee or fry meat back then, so I didn’t need a frying pan, bacon, sugar, flour, and other stuff like that. I would live off the fat of the land. My trusty rifle would provide.

Mist usually hung above the River’s surface in the early morning, and turtles would offer tempting targets when they stuck their heads above water. I would creep down the Indian trail behind our cabin, sneaking along the River’s edge, ever watchful for wild game and large flocks of ducks and geese that used this passage for annual migrations. I never saw any ducks or geese, so sparrows and blue jays were the main objects of my stalks because they were plentiful and always in season. An occasional robin was a gift from heaven, but I gave up on squirrels and rabbits. Like buffalo, they were rarely seen along the River, and they also were really fast.

Jay birds and sparrows could be fast movers too, so I had to stalk quickly and quietly when I spotted game at the foot of the mountains, ducking behind tall Ponderosa Pines and low, moss-draped oaks for cover. If I were seen by my quarry, my meal would disappear in a flurry of wing beats.

My rifle shot about an inch low and a bit to the left at around forty feet, so I had to hold the sights just above and a little to the right of my target. Most of the time when I squeezed the trigger, the BB did its job. Although it was gratifying to see my prey tumble through the air after a successful shot, I always felt a bit of remorse when I succeeded. I took no pleasure in killing any living thing, but somehow it seemed proper in the over-all scheme of things. I enjoyed eating meat, and this was how you got it.

Once enough birds were collected, usually about two or three, they were meticulously plucked, drawn and dressed, salted and peppered, and skewered on a green oak stick. The stick had to be green so it would not burn, and it had to be fairly thick for the same reason. I learned this the hard way, as they say, after seeing my meal drop into a bed of hot coals one morning when the skewer burned through. Those particular birds turned out to be still edible, even if a bit well done. And ashes don’t taste as bad as you might think.

Using only dry wood from oak trees, never pine, a bed of coals took about half an hour to prepare. Then the birds were carefully roasted until golden brown, sometimes slightly blackened, with crispy skin. The tiny drumsticks were my favorite parts (they were so crunchy), but the succulent breast meat was also excellent. Although the jays were a little larger, sparrows had a sweeter flavor and were my personal favorites. I preferred them cooked somewhere between medium rare and well done. Nothing but bones would be left, and I always burned them in the fire so there was minimal evidence of my having passed through this remote territory … in case Indians were nearby.

Just as things were starting to go well in my life, our family moved to Marshall, Texas, not far from the Louisiana border. Gene, my older brother was still in college so our family numbered only four: my parents and younger brother Bob, and me. There, in the piney woods of northeast Texas, we lived in another mountain cabin. This one was also a two bedroom rent house that sat beside an enormous lake that was nearly half an acre shore to shore. On a clear day, I could see all the way to the other side. For a bedroom, Bob and I shared a large back porch that was screened-in from about four feet up to the roof. Inside, awnings of colorful canvas were unfurled in the event of rainy or cold weather, and there was a small work shed in back not far from the outhouse. The possibilities were unlimited.

When I was twelve and still lived in the cabin by the lake, Gene gave me a used, single shot .410 shotgun for Christmas. No gift has ever been more appreciated. I had honed my hunting skills considerably since taking up the sport down on the Missouri River in Louisiana. With this addition to my arsenal, I could now hunt squirrels, rabbits, doves, quail, and other small game that roamed the forests nearby – namely, Finkley’s farm, a twenty acre patch of woods that adjoined our rental place and upon which I had permission to hunt. Could life get any better?

Mostly, I shot snakes that lived in a big woodpile by the pond, but I knew there were squirrels in the woods because my keen eyes had detected evidence of their feeding in the forest. For years, I thought the proper term for such sign was “spoor”, but later I found that this word referred to something else.

When I would return empty-handed after a lengthy hunt, my mother would inquire, “See any squirrels?”

“No, but I know they’re there. I found some spoor,” I would reply.

“That’s good. Now, wash your hands and get cleaned up for supper.”

Wash my hands?

Eventually, I did bag my first squirrel. He was old and gray and tough as shoe leather, but I sure did enjoy him smothered in a brown gravy with rice and field peas. My mom was a good cook.

Years passed, and interests changed. I discovered that girls could be a lot of fun to be with, but I never lost interest in hunting. I took up fishing as another serious avocation when I was in junior high, and after I got my driver’s license at age fourteen, the outdoor world really opened up.

Home now was a small house Mother and Dad were buying on the outskirts of Marshall. There was no adjacent river or lake or wilderness, but Caddo Lake was only a half hour’s drive away. This cypress wonderland beckoned me for years, and I yielded to its siren call many more times than I should have but still made passing grades in school.

My best friends back then were Mike Baker and Johnny Fitzpatrick, with whom I hunted and fished at every opportunity. The summer after tenth grade, the three of us claimed ownership to a duck blind down on Caddo Lake. The Lake was public property, but hunters were allowed to put up “permanent” blinds back then. We felt entitled to the old blind because we had been observing it for over a year, and when we first saw it, it was just a pile of rotting boards. We rebuilt the blind late that summer and brushed it with willow branches. Then we ordered tapes on how to blow duck calls and practiced daily until the opening of duck season.

Since we fished on Caddo several times a week during summer months, we had the opportunity to collect stray decoys that had drifted away from sets put out the previous year. There were a surprising number of these available, even if they were in pretty poor condition. Our odds for finding these drifters improved, however, as opening day approached, and our definition of “drifted” broadened. Anyway, we collected a couple dozen of these mis-matched imitations and painted our initials over any that were there previously. Some might liken this to “over-branding” of rustled cattle, but we didn’t.

On opening morning that first year, we were in the blind well before daylight since legal shooting hours started half an hour before sunrise. We loaded our shotguns … by then I had a 12 gauge Remington pump … and sat drinking coffee and practicing feeding chuckles with our calls when we were surprised to hear an outboard motor approaching. At first, we thought it might be headed up the shoreline to another blind, but the drone of the slow-running engine gradually grew louder and slower in the foggy darkness until it was apparent the boat was coming through our decoys directly to our blind.

Mike, Johnny, and I stood simultaneously and shined our flashlights on the boat. It slowed to a stop as the pilot cut back on the throttle and killed the engine. “What are you boys doing in my blind?” a voice called from the night.

“This is OUR blind,” we replied almost in unison. “It hasn’t been brushed in at least three years, and we re-built it and brushed it this fall. It’s ours now.”

A few seconds of silence followed, then to our great relief, the man started his engine, dropped it into gear and motored off into the sinister fog. We never saw him or heard from him again.

I don’t recall the number of ducks we brought home that first day or even that season or the next, but it would be a long time before I killed a limit. That’s not to say we didn’t have a grand time on all those cold mornings in our own blind, sometimes in rain or fog and sometimes with bluebird skies. We killed some ducks, but more importantly, we had the thrill of having them respond to our calls, circling the blind, talking back to us with soft quacks and chuckles, and finally, most thrilling of all, spreading and setting their wings, feet braced out front for landing, and drifting down into our blocks. Later in life, I would kill some “big game”, but that was never more exciting than having those ducks turn and come to my call and try to sit down in our spread.

Well, those years passed too quickly, and college was an introduction to the real world. I still hunt and fish, but never has my enjoyment of the outdoors been any greater than when pulling in a nice bass or dropping a big greenhead over a spread of decoys down on Caddo.

Bill Booth

Read about Bill Booth on the Writer’s Bio page