River Rat

 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach”  Henry  David Thoreau

 

    He lived in a two room cabin between the railroad track and the river bank. Even at the tender age of fourteen, I was always careful not to call his home a shack. In truth though, if you called it anything else you were just being kind. To me, the inside of the house was a marvel of organized chaos, he absolutely never, and I mean never, threw anything away. Yet each and every of the hundreds of items stored there hung in mathematical precision. He kept everything because he might need it later; he had no job, no title and no responsibilities. He lived close to the earth, he was a man of the woods, he was a river rat.

    I think there used to be a lot of kids that grew up in rural settings that knew of a person that lived in the woods or on the riverbank. These people didn’t fit a conventional mold for what society said about how a person is supposed to live. They were considered bums, or hermits, or river rats and maybe some less kind names. Even as a kid I remember thinking that he was the only person around not concerned with his status. He seemed oblivious to the scorn of the world.

   

    What he was not oblivious to was everything in God’s creation, the natural world. If it walked, crawled, flew or swam in the river, he knew what it was and how to catch it. If it had fur, feathers, scales, or hair, he knew at least three different ways to cook it. He was a complete marvel to me when it came to identifying plants, I don’t think there is a plant growing in the eastern woods that he could not name. To his day when I cannot tell you what some nondescript plant growing in the woods may be, I feel as though I have let him down.  

    Of all the woods craft that he excelled in, I believe that trapping was his favorite. The only good thing that I ever heard said about him from the adults in my world was “I think he could trap a muskrat in the Sahara Desert”. In the trapping realm, to me, he was larger than life. I was a teenager and had made up my mind that I would live in the Canadian or Alaskan wilderness and be a fur trapper. Here he was doing that, right before my eyes. In my mind I can still conjure the vision of me walking into his fur shed, probably eyes wide, and looking upon the rows of carefully handled pelts.

    Mink, muskrats, raccoon, opossum, skunks and foxes, if it had saleable fur it was hanging in his shed. He trapped in season and he trapped humanely and he took special pains in handling his pelts. He always got top dollar for his fur. Some years that was not very much.

    He always said that he was so poor that he “didn’t even have two wooden nickels to rub together”. He tried to make up for that by trapping in the winter and digging medical roots in the summer and fall. Ginseng was his main target of course, but he also dug bloodroot, goldenseal, and cohosh.

    I figured out early on that it would be better if my parents didn’t know of my visits to “ol’ Seth’s” cabin. That was all I ever knew him by, just ol’ Seth. I fished with him some in the summer; he showed me how to find “seng”, I never could spot it like him, and we trapped in the winter.

    One dreary early spring day I walked up to the cabin and he was just gone. His very few possessions he had taken and the door was open. There on the rickety table lay his old Barlow knife, I knew the instant I saw it that he had left it for me. He knew that I had always had an eye for it. I remember thinking that I didn’t know if he had another knife. But he must have. I heard later that someone said he went down south to pick fruit. Fruit, of all things. I hoped that he could trap down there, wherever he was.  

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Cur Dog

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    “Hey boy, that there is a Cur dog”, Raymond Taylor said when they stepped into his shed. Under the work bench, on a pile of old rags and newspapers lay a canine visitor he had never seen before. It was a little female and she slowly got to her feet and took two steps from under the bench. She looked up at them, but with head down like she had been caught doing something wrong.

    “Don’t look like much to me”, Joey said, hands in his ragged overall pockets and his usual defiant mode. Raymond studied the dog for a moment; she was dirty and half-starved no doubt, but this dog was not just any mongrel. This dog had to be from Mountain Cur stock, maybe even papered. Where could she have come from? He didn’t know anyone within forty miles of here that had dogs like this.

    Raymond eased forward and offered his hand to the brindle and white dog to smell. She cowered a little more but very carefully raised her head and gave his fingers a cautious sniff. “We’ll get her a bite to eat and see how she acts then”, Raymond said, half to himself. Joey had already lost interest in the dog, and as usual was digging through some junk in the corner of the shed. “You gonna keep her?” Joey said suspiciously, he had two old knife blades in his hands that Raymond had never finished.

    Now Raymond paused and inspected the young man before him. Twelve and a half years old, towed headed and almost handsome if you could see past the dirt and grime that usually obscured his face. He was the son of the Wilson girl that lived a half mile down the road. Raymond had never asked about the boy’s father.

     He thought of the night that the state trooper knocked on his door, two o’clock in the morning. “Got this Wilson boy here,” the trooper said under the porch light, “He was with some older boys that got in a little bind, I don’t think he did much, but it was probably close.” “I can’t find his Mom and her daddy said he don’t want him.”

    The trooper’s words hung in the night air, half question, half declaration. Raymond glanced at the boy on the porch, he saw the kid sometimes walking the road, always dirty, always that piercing look. Raymond gave the trooper a look that said “So why’d you bring him here?” the young policeman glanced down for a moment and said “You’re the closest neighbor”.

    So Joey stayed here with him when his mother didn’t seem to be around, Raymond had heard all the talk about Joey’s mother and the pills that he thought of as a plague that was rotting this county from the inside out. He fed the sometimes ravenous kid, bought him a few clothes, got him to take a bath occasionally, and tried to teach him some manners, it was strained at times. He and his wife of forty years never had any kids of their own.

    A week later he was walking from the shed and the Cur dog followed him two steps back. Joey confronted them at the big white oak in the yard, hands on his hips and that hawk like stare. “Old man Johnson down at the store told me you used to have the best dogs in the county, maybe the state”. Joey let that one hang for a minute then said, “How come you don’t keep dogs no more?”

    Taken back, he stammered for a second then said, “Well boy, I just didn’t care about that no more after Eva died.” He felt the stab just to say her name, “I sold off the young dogs and when my old Poacher dog died I just didn’t want no more”. He felt the boy had made him fess up to a thing long hidden, a thing he did not want to unearth. Joey considered his answer for a moment then stalked away, giving no hint of his judgment.

    Several days later he was in the shop and he heard a sound that startled him and brought him running into the yard. It was a sound that he never thought he would hear again. It was a child’s laugh; he walked around the barn to see if it could be true. The boy was throwing an old half deflated basketball he had found somewhere. The Cur dog would race over, grab the ball, and fly back towards the boy. When she got to the kid she would juke to the side and race away, this brought squeals of delight from the boy. Raymond was enthralled, but he backed away unnoticed so as not to break the spell. He glanced one more time at the dog and boy, then at the clouds above the white oak, could it be?

    One morning at daylight he was dreaming about a dog treeing. The dog was barking good, but he couldn’t seem to reach the tree. As the sleep left him, he realized the barking was in his yard. He walked out on the porch and saw the Cur dog, feet on the white oak, telling the world like Poacher used to do. Joey stood behind the dog, eyes scanning the branches. When he saw Raymond he yelled, “She’s got a big fox squirrel treed, bring us a gun!” Raymond looked upon the two youngsters for a moment and thought he might take Joey and show up at church this Sunday.

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KEEP AT IT

“You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it” Margret Thatcher

 

 

    So by now you think that you are getting a little tired, the Spring Gobbler Season has been in for seventeen days and you are actually thinking about quitting. So what if you fell asleep at work for the third time this week and then you pulled into your driveway and couldn’t remember where you were? Now my turkey huntin’ brother I am going to be a little hard on you, but this is for your own good. You have only hunted seven days since season opened and you are ready to sleep in and then get up and watch Dr. Phil, shame, shame.  

 

    Is your memory so short? Is your faith so small? Can you not remember the immense girth of your optimism before the season? You lived in a haze of turkey land, you dreamed about huge gobblers with spurs like daggers and a gobble so loud that it blew your hat off. You actually dreamed about turkeys more than you did about Raylan’s ex-wife on “Justified”. You spent hours (just ask your wife or girlfriend) practicing your calling and going over your equipment. Is everything ready in your vest? Do I need another call? How about gloves? You may even have went all the way this year and bought a new shotgun!

 

    And now just because you spooked a turkey on the opener, one you should have had, and haven’t worked a turkey since and the boys at the barber shop are telling you “they’ve quit”. You are ready to go home with your tail tucked. This isn’t how we do things, my brother in camo that is not how you were raised. OK, here is what we are going to.

 

    If you need to take a day off and rest, go ahead. This will give you energy for the campaign ahead. Take those camo clothes that have not seen soap and water for two weeks and run them through the washer. Get those boots dried out and wipe that new gun down with a little Hoppes. Go through that vest and clean it out, remove all sticks, leaves, and Little Debbie wrappers. Organize everything and have it ready to go for a new day (don’t forget to load up with fresh Little Debbie cakes.) While you are at it, shovel that truck out. More wrappers, Skoal and Diet Coke cans and about a dozen empty water bottles, out they go! Now, one more thing, take a fresh shotgun shell, not one you have loaded and unloaded twenty times, out of the box and put it in your vest. When you go to load up tomorrow morning, put that new, fresh shell in the chamber.

 

    Alright! Are you starting to feel better already? Things are not so bad after all, just wait till you get out there and face those turkeys this time! You are now going to be a more seasoned, wizened, hunter. All the easy turkeys are gone, now it’s you and the wise ol’ gobblers that are left. (Who will be no match for your predator like cunning.) When you get on a turkey that is gobbling, (and you will), take it easy, just a few little yelps and clucks, he heard all that supersonic calling the first two weeks. Play it cool.

 

    I think you are about ready; almost everyone goes through this sometime in their turkey slaying career. You just needed a little guidance and a swift kick in the seat cushion of your vest. Now get out there and do what turkey hunters do, pursue those longbeards to the ends of the earth. No thanks are necessary now; you can thank me when you put a bead on that red head in a couple days. I really didn’t want you to sleep in. You never cared for Doctor Phil anyway.

 

 

 

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Turkeys, Coffee, and Sleep Deprivation

 

    Do you really think that having eight hours of sleep every night is necessary? Don’t you figure some scientist somewhere doing a study tells us this because it sounds good and maybe he is working on the side for Mattress Company? Yeah, that’s what I thought too, the people telling us this are definitely not turkey hunters.

    All my brothers in camo out there know that we and are in the middle of Spring Gobbler Season and that means little or no sleep. Your humble scribe is writing this to you from turkey camp, sleep is almost a nonexistent commodity and I am doing just fine. Again, I think the necessity for a lot of sleep is highly over rated. Now what was I telling you about again?……. O yeah, turkey camp.

    Most days in turkey camp start the same way, you get up at some evil, chilling hour, and the feeling in your head is reminiscent of that time you had the flu and you took way too much cold medicine-fuzzy. You stumble through the cabin to get the remedy, the only relief known that will help your fuzz infested brain-coffee! No one knows how the Indians hunted turkeys before they had coffee, I have read about several studies on this, but the results seem to be inconclusive. They may have had a substitute for coffee, maybe some tree or root that they boiled to get a coffee like substance, kind of like the newer turkey hunters today that drink Mountain Dew.

    The need for coffee during Spring Turkey season cannot be overemphasized, I would much rather forget the shotgun than the coffee. Most of the time I don’t need the shotgun anyway.  After stoking up on several cups of coffee that some of my buddies claim that I have made too strong (again). I run out the door after stuffing several Little Debbie Cakes and an apple in my vest (have to eat healthy, you know.)

    I am now driving in the predawn darkness, (only slightly above the speed limit) arguing with my buddy about where we should go and having maybe my eighth cup of coffee. I know that is not much but it will have to do me as the guy I am with will invariably forget the thermos we filled up back at camp. We pull into the hunting spot that he wanted to go to. I argued with him because I knew we would not hear one turkey gobble at this place. I have a terrible habit of always being right about this, (it’s a gift). My friend has his shotgun, vest, all his other goodies and is gone into the darkness. I am still looking for that other glove, my shells, one certain turkey call, and the rest of the Debbie Cakes.

    I now locate my buddy going up a steep incline as we must gain elevation to listen for the raucous call of the gobblers, (but we won’t hear any here, remember?) When we reach the top I walk away from him so he can’t hear me as I gasp for breath, about the time I regain my breathing I inhale a gnat that seems to be roughly the size of a quail. This induces only a short coughing and gagging episode and my former buddy actually laughs out loud only once.

    Now as we stand and listen to the entire woodland world wake up, the best part of the day, I start to feel the need for more coffee. It has been roughly twenty minutes since I finished my last cup, but the fuzziness is coming back, trying to carry me away to another place, a place where I can sleep, and dream. Wait, what’s that? My former buddy is motioning to me frantically, implying that he is hearing a turkey gobbling; he is starting tolook kind of fuzzy around the edges, why didn’t he bring that thermos!     

 

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