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Grays Best

Roger's War by Thomas Rushmore


Roger's War
Sooner or later you have to go back to the river, to the ducks and the dreams and the reality. Sooner or later.
by Thomas Rushmore
From the November/December 2007 issue. 

 

He leaned back into the roots of the red oak and let out a slow breath. The sand on the riverbank was comfortable, and he sat staring between his wadered feet at the river’s edge. It was warm for early November in Maine, and seemed more like October except for the bleak hardwoods, with only a few oaks and small beech still holding stubborn brown leaves. The river was running clear and low, and he could see baitfish moving here and there in the shallow water, holding briefly in the current before darting to the safety of the deeper weed beds. A few sought temporary refuge near his submerged feet, then wiggled into the darkness after the others.

The lead-blanket sensation had come once again, gradually spreading from his chest down, as it always did. There was no sudden anxiety; just the slow, heavy feeling that stole his will to do anything but sit and breathe, waiting without urgency for it to fade, as it always had.

He took no notice of the hen mallard. It had flared over his decoys 10 yards out and then banked hard over the river, protesting at full volume as it gained speed and distance.

The yellow dog, surprised by the bird dropping in over the oak canopy, jolted to her feet and feinted in its direction, then regained control and sat back down, whining as she watched the bird careen around an island and disappear upriver.

Roger Langstrom never looked up.

He had been finishing the breakfast dishes when the vehicle pulled into the driveway.

When no one came to the door right away he went to the window and saw the two men in army dress blues standing by their sedan. As curiosity morphed into a frozen thing in the pit of his stomach, he began to pray for some kind of mistake.

He felt as though he were floating, watching from a great distance as they walked toward the porch, their polished shoes reflecting the April sunshine.

He remembered thinking how strange that he and Richey, a few months before, had watched a Mel Gibson movie about the Vietnam War where the army had notified families with a telegram delivered by a cabdriver, and now here they were in person, unsure if he understood what they were telling him and he feeling like he was floating away and having trouble telling them that he knew why they were here and they didn’t need to call anyone and he would go to Sue’s office as soon as he was able.

The sun started leaking through the hardwoods covering the east bank of the river. He raised his head and watched the new rays sift through the branches. Soon they would strike him in the face and it would be impossible to spot anything coming at them. This place was always just a quick, early hunt on clear days, and he knew they would have to leave soon.

He picked up the black duck he had killed at first light. As they usually did here, it had come in hot over the oaks behind them. He had been ready then and had killed it cleanly, dropping it into the decoys with a skidding splash, the water droplets sparkling in the dawn. The dog had charged into the shallow riffles, intercepting the drifting bird with much urgency for such an easy retrieve, her enthusiasm seemingly unaffected by two years off.

Roger smoothed the gray feathers on the duck’s head. It was a big late-season bird with bright red legs and a heavy body. He wondered how far it had come. He put his face to the bird and inhaled, remembered how he had jokingly taught Richey to check for the saltwater odor that would tell him the duck had arrived from the nearby coast. It had become a ritual for them, and occasionally one actually did smell unmistakably of the ocean. This one smelled fresh, like the water of the Penobscot, with a trace of the organic soup that enriched the currents of the big river.

He stood up, and the dog, hesitating briefly for direction that didn’t come, waded out into bellydeep water and then back. Shaking, she trotted up and down the shore of the island, sniffing around excitedly as if she were there for the first time. He dragged the square-stern canoe down the bank and collected the half-dozen decoys. Stashing the gear behind the bow seat, he slid the boat into shallow water. The dog stood by the canoe staring at him. Her fur still had that whipped-cream, wet-Lab look. He held tight onto the gunwale and pointed to the bow. “In.” She leapt into the boat ahead of the bow seat, slamming against the hull and nearly causing him to lose his grip, then settled into her usual position.

He had decided to move to the west side of the scattered little islands, out of the bright sun and into the main river channel.

The dream had come again. He and Richey walked together and talked. Like the other times, he couldn’t remember what was said; only that he awoke with the impression that everything was fine. The sensation of Richey being there always seemed so real that he would sit up expecting to find his son in the house, and it took a couple of minutes to clear his head and realize he was alone. A sense of peace would sometimes linger for days.

He had gone to the gun cabinet when he awoke from the last one, and feeling no nausea this time picked up Richey’s shotgun from the rack. It was an old 16-gauge Browning autoloader Richey bought from Doc Emerson at the gun club when Rich was a sophomore in high school. The stock was all gouged and the bluing rubbed off, as though Doc had routinely left it uncased and bouncing around behind the seat of his truck. The guts and bore looked perfect, though, and Richey bought it for $200. They had always joked that Doc was the living definition of someone having too much money, treating a gun like that.

Roger mounted the shotgun and swung on an imaginary bird. It felt balanced and good in his hands. The gouged wood felt almost warm to the touch—somehow comfortable in its disfigurement.

Replacing it in the rack, he took out his own gun and checked it for rust. Then he went to the garage to find the rest of the gear.

Sue came in after work, and he could sense her watching him from the kitchen as he fussed over some gear at his desk in the den. Without looking up he knew she was trying to decide how to deal with the purple elephant parked in the driveway, loaded with canoe and decoys. She took the easy way out and knelt down to hug the neck of the wiggling Lab. “Is your Daddy taking our pretty girl hunting?” The Lab circled her, prancing about. “Is my baby girl going to get a duck?”

The dog ran to the door and planted herself there, guarding it should he attempt to leave without her. Sue walked to him as he sat at the desk, still refusing to look up from the gear he pretended to study.

“Would you like me to pack you two a lunch or anything?”

“No, we’ll stop and get something. Thanks anyhow.”

She put her arms around him from behind and held him softly, then bending, kissed the top of his head. Roger held his breath, fighting what was welling up inside him. Her arms tightened around his shoulders before she turned and left the room. He heard the television come on, a reporter giving a dramatic account of something happening somewhere, then the sound of ice filling two glasses. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly then started for the other room to join his wife.

Roger climbed into the canoe and laid the shotgun along the center thwart with the barrel resting on the gunwale. He had decided to leave the outboard up and paddle through the little bunch of islands, maybe getting an opportunity for a jump shot as he worked his way to the bigger western channel and another blind.

He pushed the paddle into the muck along the bank, trying to muscle the boat out into the current far enough to float it. The hull hung up on the bottom briefly, and as he dug in the paddle for another push he noticed the sweet, decayed vegetation swampwater smell wafting up from the disturbed muck and felt the old familiar satisfaction of muscling a canoe about.

Digging the paddle blade into the bottom again, he found hard sand and slid out into the gentle current. He felt uneasy for a moment and thought about starting the outboard and going back to the landing—calling it a day, a bird in the boat, the effort made. Roger made a few paddle strokes farther from shore, shaking the anxious feeling as they glided into the stronger flow of the deeper water.

He let the current carry them downriver, staying tight inshore until he found the narrow gut between the islands. He nosed the canoe into the opening and moved slowly through, taking care not to thump the paddle as he pushed his way into thinner water, the dog statue like in the bow as she scanned the banks and swampy pockets for birds.

The pair of black ducks appeared from behind a clump of reeds to his right, turning in tight nervous circles before flushing well within range. He already had his one legal black duck, and he watched them fly low out into the main channel, the wingtips of the low bird leaving a curve of dimples on the surface. He noticed too late the pair of mallards that had been against the bank and scrambled for his gun as they flushed, following the path of the blacks. He swung through the drake, but it felt too far out and he let it go.

The canoe slid from the little gut out into the strong flow of the western channel, and he had to dig in hard with the paddle to swing the boat into the current. After a few strokes he was lined up and settled into a rhythm, moving the 200 yards upstream to the island where they would set up. A narrow spit of sand capped by willow brush and bisecting the main channel, it was a good vantage point to watch for birds traveling up and down the river after the early morning feeding.

The bow pushed into the sand and the dog jumped out without being sent, unaware of the annoyed glance that followed her as she ran up the beach, quartering as she searched for interesting odors.

Roger unloaded gear and waded out into the shallow riffles off the downstream point of the island. He tossed out a dozen decoys, half-hitching the lines to the side of the keels so they would tack back and forth in the current.

Satisfied with the rig, he dragged the boat up into the willows and out of sight. He was looking for a good spot to drive some sticks into the sand for the camo-cloth blind when he noticed the remnants of the old one. A half dozen sticks leaned at an angle, covered with dead grass, ravaged by two years of ice and floods. This was one of the places he and Richey had hunted, and Roger tried to recall the details of the last time they had been here. It had been early season, and he thought they may have killed a couple of wood ducks here, but he couldn’t remember for sure.

He stood looking at the collapsed blind, unable to decide whether to use it again or to set up a short distance away. He felt a little silly over his hesitation and went to work straightening the old sticks and gathering a few more to finish the frame. He hung the cloth and removed the shells, calls, and facemask from the plastic bucket, then turned it over for a seat. He called the dog and she slipped past him to the front of the blind, settling near an open corner where she could look out over the decoys and the river below.

A small flock passed over, out of range and heading downriver, giving no indication that they’d noticed the decoys or the calls. When the birds were 200 yards away, a pair of mallards broke out and spiraled downward, circling several times before finally dropping into a little swampy cove formed by a small point covered with cattails. The ducks were out of sight in the cove, and he thought it might be worth a try ambushing the birds when they gave up on the blind for the day.

More birds were moving from below, still high and well out of range. Soon he heard an outboard approaching, and he watched as the boat came into view a half mile downstream, putting up birds along the way.

A half-dozen fellows wearing blaze-orange deer-hunting gear crowded the small aluminum boat, moving steadily against the current as they came abreast of the island. He could hear good-natured banter coming across the water, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. The hunter in the bow spotted him and waved, and he returned the greeting. The others stopped talking and two of them also waved, then resumed their chatter as they went out of sight above the island. He thought they were probably going to drive the big islands upriver for deer. They sounded excited to be going hunting.

Roger was having a difficult time sitting still now, unable to shake the vague feeling that he should be doing something else. He tried to focus on the river currents sliding past, shifting and wrinkling on the thin places, the deeper runs steady and somehow comforting to watch. He began to feel more relaxed, and once again his attention returned to the river and the birds.

There were quite a few ducks in the air, and he saw several more head for the cove below, breaking from the flocks and dropping in tight corkscrews behind the point. More came from upriver, disturbed by the deer hunters, and singles and pairs continued to join the others. He estimated there were 40 or 50 birds gathered in the little cove, all dropping out of sight behind the point of cattails.

Roger decided to pick up and paddle down to the feeding ducks. If he hugged the shore and could make the point without a lot of noise he had a good chance of jumping the birds within range. Even if the birds flushed out of range he could drift down through the rest of the islands, maybe getting a jump shot before motoring back to the landing.

He waded out and pulled the decoys quickly, dragged the boat from the willows, then went back to the blind for the rest of the gear. He took the cloth from the stick frame and noticed a rusted 16-gauge hull half-crushed into the sand just outside the blind. He started to bend to pick it up, then pushed it into the ground with his heel, carefully smoothing the sand with the toe of his boot. The heaviness was there, anchoring his legs as the slow wave started through him:

 

The men from the base were coming up the walk. His fear faded as they hurried to explain that his son had been injured, but should fully recover. He would be able to call home soon and share the details of the helicopter crash that failed to kill him on that lonely, windswept mountainside on the other side of the world. He would come home and marry that sweet redheaded girl he had dated in high school and they would come over to the house on summer evenings to drink beer and watch the Red Sox while a little three-year- old monster with a ponytail and freckles bounced from lap to lap demanding attention.

 

Roger opened his eyes and stared downriver, taking long slow breaths. He focused on the wispy cirrus clouds until he could detect the slightest movement as they shifted from west to east, moving ever so slowly against the distant hills. Roger took one last deep breath and exhaled fully, then began to gather his gear.

He threw the last of his stuff into the boat and motioned the dog into the bow, hissing at her, easy, easy. She stepped over the gunwale stiff-legged and settled into her place quietly, her eyes riveted on the island 200 yards downstream.

He poled alongshore with the paddle, pushing it into the bottom and moving slowly down the shallow water until he was within a hundred yards of the screen of cattails. He found a soft place on the bank and pushed the canoe onto it, stepping out carefully and sliding it farther onto the shore. Stay, staaay, he whispered, and the dog sat, shifting slightly as she looked to the point below them. He could hear the ducks now, chuckling contentedly as they fed. He took his gun from the boat and held onto the gunwale to prevent the gear from rattling. He motioned the Lab out and started toward the unseen birds, crouching low and stepping carefully.

The Lab followed at his left side and was snuffling like a pig, filling her nostrils with bird scent. A drake mallard swam from behind the cattails, spotted them at 20 yards, then whirled and flushed. Roger swung up through the drake and killed it cleanly. The air filled with birds and he chose another green-head from the fragmenting mass of blacks and mallards, hitting it too far back; then, leading it farther, he knocked it down with the next shot. Ducks were still going up within range, but he didn’t attempt to reload. He noticed how brilliant the colors were as the birds rose from the shadows into the clear of the mid-morning light, the blue and green of the mallards churning amid the silver underwings of the blacks, all in a frenzy to gain altitude.

He sent the dog out for the closest bird and kept an eye on the other drake that was drifting in the eddy out near the main current. The Lab put the first bird in his hand and turned back for the second, throwing herself out into the river with a leap and a crash. She delivered the second duck and shook hard before sitting beside him. They both watched as the birds circled in small groups in the distance, and then melted together into one flock before sinking out of sight over the tree line.

The yellow dog stared out the truck window at her master. He had parked at the end of a road on the high back corner of the cemetery. It was two hours past sunset, and the moon was just beginning to throw shadows from the trees onto the cut grass. Crystals of frost were already starting to form on the canoe, protruding from the pickup bed and shimmering in the new moonlight. The dog was warm inside the truck, her fur dry now. She watched as the man opened a pocket knife, knelt to cut weeds from around a stone, then sat down cross-legged on the grass beside it. She listened to him speak, but saw no one there. Having chewed any remnants from the wrappers of the fast food they had shared on the drive here, she nosed the bottle cap on the console that had just been removed from a pint of Jim Beam. Losing interest in the bottle cap, she turned and faced the window again, returning her focus to the man. He continued to sit and talk softly, occasionally moving his arms as if swinging a shotgun on some invisible target. Satisfied that he wasn’t leaving her, she circled twice in the truck seat and lay down with a groan. She was tired from hunting all day and was asleep almost instantly.


Tom lives in Orrington, Maine, and works full-time in a paper mill and parttime as a patrol deputy. He has written hundreds of police reports, but this is his first story to appear in a magazine.

 
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