For Marylois Dunn
There were three hunters and three dogs. The hunters had shiny shotguns, warm clothes and plenty of ammo. The dogs were each covered in big blue spots and were sleek and glossy and ready to run. No duck was safe.
The hunters were Clyde Barrow, James Clover, and little Freddie Clover, who was only fifteen and very excited to be asked along. However, Freddie did not really want to see a duck, let alone shoot one. He had never killed anything but a sparrow with his BB gun and that had made him sick. But he was nine then. Now he was ready to be a man. His father told him so.
With this hunt he felt he had become part of a secret organization. One that smelled of tobacco smoke and whiskey breath; sounded of swear words, talk about how good certain women were, the range and velocity of rifles and shotguns, the edges of hunting knives, the best caps and earflaps for winter hunting.
In Mud Creek, the hunt made the man.
Since Freddie was nine he had watched with more than casual interest how when a boy turned fifteen in Mud Creek, he would be invited to The Hunting Club for a talk with the men. Next step was a hunt, and when the boy returned he was a boy no longer. He talked deep, walked sure, had whiskers bristling on his chin and could take up, with the assurance of not being laughed at, cussing, smoking and watching women's butts as a matter of course.
Freddie wanted to be a man too. He had pimples, no pubic hair to speak of (he always showered quickly at school to escape derisive remarks about the size of his equipment and the thickness of his foliage), scrawny legs and little, gray, watery eyes that looked like ugly planets spinning in white space.
And truth was, Freddie preferred a book to a gun.
But came the day when Freddie turned fifteen and his father came home from the Club, smoke and whiskey smell clinging to him like a hungry tick, his face slightly dark with beard and tired-looking from all-night poker.
He came into Freddie's room, marched over to the bed where Freddie was reading Thor, clutched the comic from his son's hands, sent it fluttering across the room with a rainbow of comic panels.
"Nose out of the book," his father said. "Time to join the Club."
Freddie went to the Club, heard the men talk ducks, guns, the way the smoke and blood smelled on cool morning breezes. They told him the kill was the measure of a man. They showed him heads on the wall. They told him to go home with his father and come back tomorrow bright and early, ready for his first hunt.
His father took Freddie downtown and bought a flannel shirt (black and red), a thick jacket (fleece lined), a cap (with ear flaps) and boots (waterproof). He took Freddie home and took a shotgun down from the rack, gave him a box of ammo, walked him out back to the firing range and made him practice while he told his son about hunts and the war and about how men and ducks died much the same.
Next morning before the sun was up, Freddie and his father had breakfast. Freddie's mother did not eat with them. Freddie did not ask why. They met Clyde over at the Club and rode in his jeep down dirt roads, clay roads and trails, through brush and briars until they came to a mass of reeds and cattails that grew thick and tall as Japanese bamboo.
They got out and walked. As they walked, pushing aside the reeds and cattails, the ground beneath their feet turned marshy. The dogs ran ahead.
When the sun was two hours up, they came to a bit of a clearing in the reeds, and beyond them Freddie could see the break-your-heart blue of a shiny lake. Above the lake, coasting down, he saw a duck. He watched it sail out of sight.
"Well, boy?" Freddie's father said.
"It's beautiful," Freddie said.
"Beautiful, hell, are you ready?"
On they walked, the dogs way ahead now, and finally they stood within ten feet of the lake. Freddie was about to squat down into hiding as he had heard of others doing, when a flock of ducks burst up from a mass of reeds in the lake and Freddie, fighting off the sinking feeling in his stomach, tracked them with the barrel of the shotgun, knowing what he must do to be a man.
His father's hand clamped over the barrel and pushed it down. "Not yet," he said.
"Huh?" said Freddie.
"It's not the ducks that do it," Clyde said.
Freddie watched as Clyde and his father turned their heads to the right, to where the dogs were pointing—noses forward, paws upraised—to a thatch of underbrush. Clyde and his father made quick commands to the dogs to stay, then they led Freddie into the brush, through a twisting maze of briars and out into a clearing where all the members of The Hunting Club were waiting.
In the center of the clearing was a gigantic duck decoy. It looked ancient and there were symbols carved all over it. Freddie could not tell if it were made of clay, iron or wood. The back of it was scooped out, gravy-bowl-like, and there was a pole in the center of the indention; tied to the pole was a skinny man. His head had been caked over with red mud and there were duck feathers sticking in it, making it look like some kind of funny cap. There was a ridiculous, wooden duckbill held to his head by thick elastic straps. Stuck to his butt was a duster of duck feathers. There was a sign around his neck that read DUCK.
The man's eyes were wide with fright and he was trying to say or scream something, but the bill had been fastened in such a way he couldn't make any more than a mumble.
Freddie felt his father's hand on his shoulder. "Do it," he said. "He ain't nobody to anybody we know. Be a man."
"Do it! Do it! Do it!" came the cry from The Hunting Club.
Freddie felt the cold air turn into a hard ball in his throat. His scrawny legs shook. He looked at his father and The Hunting Club. They all looked tough, hard and masculine.
"Want to be a titty baby all your life?" his father said. That put steel in Freddie's bones. He cleared his eyes with the back of his sleeve and steadied the barrel on the derelict's duck's head.
"Do it!" came the cry. "Do it! Do it! Do it!"
At that instant he pulled the trigger. A cheer went up from The Hunting Club, and out of the clear, cold sky, a dark blue norther blew in and with it came a flock of ducks. The ducks lit on the great idol and on the derelict. Some of them dipped their bills in the derelict's wetness.
When the decoy and the derelict were covered in ducks, all The Hunting Club lifted their guns and began to fire.
The air became full of smoke, pellets, blood and floating feathers
When the gunfire died down and the ducks died out, The Hunting Club went forward and bent over the decoy, did what they had to do. Their smiles were red when they lifted their heads. They wiped their mouths gruffly on the backs of their sleeves and gathered ducks into hunting bags until they bulged. There were still many carcasses lying about.
"Good shooting, son," Fred's father said and clapped him manfully on the back.
"Yeah," said Fred, scratching his crotch, "got that sonofabitch right between the eyes, pretty as a picture."
They all laughed.
The sky went lighter, and the blue norther that was rustling the reeds and whipping feathers about blew up and out and away in an instant. As the men walked away from there, talking deep, walking sure, whiskers bristling on all their chins, they promised that tonight they would get Fred a woman.
Come on back next Thursday, March 4, for another totally free short story by Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale!
"Duck Hunt" was originally published in the Tor Books anthology After Midnight. It later appeared in By Bizarre Hands, a collection published by Avon Books, and Bumper Crop, a collection published by Golden Gryphon Press. "Duck Hunt" © 1986 Joe R. Lansdale.