Duck feathers quivered on the ground as the cold north wind pushed a gust over the marsh. As they lifted his body from the boat, the calls and leg bands slid across his chest, rattling as they hung down from the weathered rawhide lanyard around his neck. He looked peaceful. A light frost sprinkled over his beard and eyebrows. It was happenstance he was discovered. No one was expected to come the marsh today.
The last member of a loosely assembled duck club of friends and acquaintances, Charlie decided the day looked promising for a push of ducks south. He set up his ducker on a familiar clump near a shallow pool where some millet remained somewhat untouched. A place where he could easily retrieve downed birds. Sometime during the late morning, as the sun warmed, he closed his eyes and fell asleep. Four drake mallards lay in the boat next to him, his gear bag, and shotgun.
His dog, Max, a black lab, died two years ago nearly to the day. Raised by his brother and trained by his niece, Max turned into a great retriever, although occasionally a little too independent. At 13 years, he couldn’t move like he once did, but he still got to go along for a hunt now and then. He made a couple good retrieves on his final morning, and after the hunt, man and dog walked the edge of the marsh looking for cripples. A couple hundred yards into their walk, Max made an abrupt course change and plunged into a mass of smartweed without command. Moments later, he returned with a lively widgeon softly pressed within his mouth. Retrieve number three for the day. That evening after dinner and cleanup, the dog spread out across his bed near the woodstove. He, too, never woke up.
Charlie buried him on the marsh near a favorite hunting spot. Sitting in the cordgrass, the old man sipped bourbon in his honor from a red plastic cup and wept for an hour as he watched ducks and geese wing by, a few, landing within range. As he readied himself to leave, he slid a well-worn dog tag off Max’s collar and secured it between leg bands on his lanyard. A fitting placement given the dog’s role in retrieving both the ducks and the bands.
Charlie was lucky. His closest friend and hunting partner stopped coming to the marsh a couple years ago. Age and sickness stole away his mobility, then his spirit. Rapidly, he withered away in a chair at home in front of the television. Pissing into a jug hanging from the walker he used to shuffle about the house. Weeks of hospice marred the end of a full and worthy life.
Other members, spread over a few years previous checked out in various ways, but mostly on their own terms. They just got old and died. They kept coming for a hunt or two. Kept paying their dues. Kept giving to the ducks and the next generation. Until the final migration when they no longer could push onward.
It was a miracle the club hung on as long as it did. Area farmers had ruined the watershed turning every creek into a ditch. Flash flooding was normal. Climate change made weather unpredictable as were duck numbers and migrations. Nearby commercial hunting operations gradually sucked the meaning out of waterfowl hunting. Public land kept promoting and providing, but the writing was on the wall. The next generation of hunters they hoped for, prepared for, became disinterested. Hunting was a box to be checked off and social media post to be made. There was no commitment.
On an early summer day in June, Charlie’s son huddled with the auctioneer as people gathered onsite. The crowd included a couple of hardcore duck hunters looking for gear and bargains. The rest were curious locals, a few farmers, and a representative from a nearby pay-to-hunt operation.
Equipment and gear would be sold first followed by the land. A tractor. A worn-out ATV. Ice eaters. A few old, handcrafted layout boats, an old-timey ducker. A few hundred decoys were divided into several lots. Silent, stoic witnesses to innumerable hunts, each bore the name of past club members going back as far 30 years. A club member’s widow contributed a few old shotguns, shells, and some other unwanted personal gear.
When the auction began, Leo stood in the background as if afraid to get too close. A young woman wearing a worn Carhartt barn coat held him steady by the arm. An original member who stepped away after needing to liquidate assets to pay the bills for the care of his ailing wife. He lingered briefly, a sadness on his face, soon turning away to walk back to his truck.
The last few lots included some decoy weights and riggings, a jerk cord setup, and a cardboard flat with some wooden duck and goose calls. The auctioneer called for an opening bid on the flat of calls. Twenty dollars.
“Thirty, thirty, who’ll give me thirty,” the auctioneer shouted. A bid card flashed. Then another and another. Thirty, forty, fifty. Bidding stalled and the colonel worked the crowd.
“Look folks, some of these old calls go for hundreds of dollars. Not like those plastic things the stores sell. And these are already broke-in and experienced.”
The woman in the Carhartt jacket had returned. She flashed a bid card, number 87.
“Sixty can I get seventy?” the auctioneer pleaded.
The woman called out, “One hundred.”
A man in his twenties wearing a camo jacket and DU hat waved his hand. “One fifty,” the auctioneer sang out. "Do I see two.”
After several bids back and forth the woman raised her card again high in the air, holding it in place.
“Three hundred. The bid is with the woman in the back at three hundred dollars,” said the auctioneer. Heads turned to look back as the woman stood motionless, her bid card still being held high. Tears streaking down her face.
The auctioneer held up the flat and one lanyard with two calls, leg bands, and a dog’s tag dangling. The auctioneer’s silence was momentary but deafening, his mind working quickly as he looked at the woman and considered what he held in his hand.
Another card flashed in the back of the crowd, too late as the auctioneer called out, “Sold to number 87. Final bid, three hundred dollars. Buyer takes all.”
The woman walked forward and took the lanyard from the cardboard flat, putting it over her head and around her neck. Picking up the flat, she walked over to the unsuccessful bidder with the DU hat.
“Wanted that string of bands pretty bad, eh?” the young man said.
“They belonged to my uncle,” she replied with moist eyes and a sniffle. Holding the dog’s tag between her fingers, she looked at the scratched-up metal, etched with the name Max.
“Max was the first dog I trained on my own.” She handed him the cardboard flat with the remaining calls. “Here ya go, enjoy ‘em.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “You paid for ‘em, fair and square.”
“Uncle Charlie would want someone to take them hunting again,” she said. “He was one hell’va duck hunter. Maybe his secrets will be revealed if you use ‘em. Besides, they’re already broke-in and experienced.”