"There ain't nothing out here," Jim said around a big wet cigar he had cribbed from the box on his dad's desk. He hadn't lit it, but was chewing it pensively. "First time I've ever seen the pond without any ducks."
Jim's parent's ranch North of Lewistown was good habitat for both, with a small creek cutting through a brushy draw ending in the spillway of Carter's Pond. It was perfect pheasant hunting and fine duck and geese hunting as well, and since in those days there was an overlap of the late upland bird season with early waterfowl season, we took advantage of that pheasant hunting up until the very moment that we could switch to ducks.
Ordinarily, the little pond was like a 4Bs for ducks, open 24 hours. But, looking out at the glassy serenity of the little pond, I had to admit he was right. There wasn't anything to shoot at except each other, and we hadn't gotten that desperate yet.
"Well hell," I said. "Where'd they all go? Do you suppose the poacher got 'em all?"
The Carter's had of late been troubled by someone poaching ducks on their property. The case remains unsolved to this day, although I had my suspicions, which I will keep to myself as a gentleman of discretion and tact. Suffice it to say that it wasn't me.
"If I ever catch that poacher... you know what I'll do," Carter asked while I looked down the sights of my shotgun at an imaginary duck the size of a Hereford.
"What'll you do?" I ask, knowing he'll launch into another baroque description of corporeal torture.
"I'd do what the Apaches did. I'd bury him up to his neck, cover his head in honey, cover that in birdseed, and let eagles peck him to death."
"Apaches did that?"
"Yep," he said gravely.
"Gosh," I said with hushed awe.
He pointed across the length of the pond. "If a duck was sat right here on the bank of the other side, you think we could shoot it from here?"
"Let's see," I said, and pulled the trigger, firing at the imaginary duck. The birdshot fell a little short, plunking harmlessly in the water a few feet from shore.
"Nope," he said, raising the brim of his deerstalker to scratch his forehead. "We shot farther than half the pond though, so if we both stood in the brush on either side, we oughta be able to hit anything that lands on the pond, right? At least one of us ought to be able to hit it."
I agreed with his logic, so we assumed positions at opposite ends of the pond and waited, patiently, for about seven minutes before we got bored.
"Still no ducks," I shouted at him through cupped hands.
"STILL NO DUCKS!"
"Shut up, dummy! You'll scare the ducks away!"
We waited another few minutes, until the boredom overtook Jim and he fired into the air and stood there, staring at me as if the shot were a challenge and I should have some answer.
"What're you doooing?" I shouted.
"Avast, ye scurvy dog," he shouted. "You'll not have this ship for yer plunder!"
Then he leveled his shotgun, his imagination rendering it an 18th-century blunderbuss, and fired it right at me.
While we were earlier able to ascertain that the majority of the birdshot wouldn't reach the shore, I now found that a few did indeed reach me. Two or three hit my jacket with a benign whap, but one struck a bit of exposed skin on my wrist, leaving a red welt.
"You SOB! You hit me!" I shouted with a giggle as I raised my own shotgun and fired off a retort from the hip.
"Ow!" He shouted, more for my benefit than out of pain. He immediately reloaded and fired back. This meant war.
Screaming, "I'll fill you full of lead, you dingbat, I'll scrub the poop deck with yer blood, ye dogsbody" and other inventive abuses we hungrily adopted from movies and comic books, we pumped shell after shell into Carter Pond, laughing our fool heads off all the while. We probably fired more rounds total than were shot at the OK Corral. Hell, we probably fired more shots than at Antietam, and the only injuries to speak of were a few contusions no worse than a particularly angry bug bite.
But try explaining that to the game warden and his men who popped up out of the brush like a trio of jackrabbits thinking this might develop from a duel into a full-blown firefight. I figured that was why the ducks weren't on the pond.
"Stop shooting those shotguns and put your hands up now!" one of them shouted, his hand resting on the butt of his revolver, giving us a look that said he meant business.
Whether as a result of an involuntary muscle spasm or the influence of some imp of the perverse, I fired one more round. POP! The sound echoed around the draws for a moment while I stared at the gun in slack-jawed disbelief. Then I threw it to the ground.
"Don't shoot me! I didn't mean to shoot!"
We said more or less the same thing to the judge later that week. As we stood in the august and sacrosanct halls of the courthouse, we watched as the judge inspected a paper handed to him by the bailiff. Then he peered at us over his glasses, conveying the distinct impression of a stern and sagacious owl.
"Alright, boys," he sighed. "Says here you were found shooting at each other in the woods. The same woods, I might add, where we've received reports of poaching."
"Your honor," Jim began, but was silenced by the judge's upheld hand.
"Furthermore, it is reported that you were discovered by these brave men," here indicating the game warden and fellow agents, who were present in the courtroom as well as pausing to look closer at the text as if in disbelief. Then he continued. "When you were discovered, you were shouting profanity at each other, evidently while aping the voice of a pirate. Is that correct, gentlemen?"
"Uh, yes sir," I said. "It is."
"I see. Well, I confess that I am two minds about this. First, part of me wants to hang you both for attempted murder. And boys, as a frontier judge, there's nothing to stop me from doing that, you understand. You could swing by suppertime, got it?"
Jim and I audibly gulped in unison, which seemed to serve as sufficient confirmation that we got it, because he continued.
"On the other hand, I was a boy myself, and I'm reluctant to send a pair of twelve-year-olds, even a pair of scurrilous scallywags such as yourself, to an untimely grave. So another possibility is shipping you to Deer Lodge, in which cold and unhomely walls you'll come to understand that taking errant potshots at your buddy was the wrong step to have taken. But at least you'll be alive, so that your parents can come visit you now and then. That is, if they haven't disowned you, and frankly, who could blame them if they did? Sticking by a pair of vicious little pirates like yourselves would be an act of Christian charity en par with the widow's offering in the Gospel of Mark."
Here he paused, both to take a breath, and, I suspect, to suppress a small laugh. I now think he may have been enjoying himself.
But we weren't. We were still terrified.
"And yet... speaking of Christian charity, there may be one last option available to us. Boys, I cannot help but notice that you are still alive. Is that so?"
Thankful for any glimmer of hope, we nodded violently.
"Aha. Then there has been no murder. And you monstrous little buccaneers seem to me to be the types that will not fail to do something once you've set your mind to it. Ergo, it was not attempted murder at all. And alas, the legal minds of this state have not yet seen fit to make stupidity illegal. I must conclude, therefore, that no crime has been committed. But heed this advice: don't let me see you before this bench again, or I'll know I've made a mistake today. You may go home."
I was grounded for a week, but I bore it in good cheer, happy that I wasn't in an isolation cell in Deer Lodge.
The next week we were sitting on the shore of Carter's Pond feeling gloomy.
"It's all that poacher's fault," Jim said. "They wouldn't have even been here if it weren't for him. Boy, I wish I knew who it is. You know what I'd do if I caught him?"
I sighed and pitched a rock into the pond. The water made a noise like "galoop" as it closed over the rock. "Alright, what would you do?"
He paused, deep in thought.
"I'd do like the Apaches do, and I'd tie him between two buffalos, and then cover him in honey, so that a bear comes up and scares the buffalos and they run and tear him apart, and then the bear eats both halves."
"Gosh," I said, aghast. "The Apaches did that?"
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.