Day the Mules Went Crazy
by Jim Foreman
POACHING DUCKS FOR FUN AND PROFIT
This is hardly the correct title for this chapter since it turned out to be a lot less fun that we had anticipated and there was certainly no profit ever to come from what we did. In fact, had the game warden lacked a good sense of humor, it could have cost several hundred dollars in a fines for all the various laws that we broke that day.
My cousin and I were constant companions during our salad years and our parents often referred to us the Katchenjammer Kids. For those too young to have ever heard of these kids, they were characters in a comic strip by that name who were always involved in some outlandish antics designed to frustrate their parents. I suppose that some of the things that we did tended to remind our parents of those comic strip kids. What one of us couldn't think up to do in the way of mischief, the other one would. In retrospect, it seems that we must have spent most of our waking hours in search of some way to get ourselves into trouble.
While my cousin and I were separated by only six months in age, we were as different in most other ways as daylight and dark. While I was usually able to outwit him, he could and did whip my butt any time that he cared to. Whenever we became involved in a tussle, I soon found myself flat on my back with him sitting on my chest, beating the daylights out of me. I more or less accepted his beating me up because as soon as I stopped bawling because of the threshing he had given me and he stopped bawling because of the spanking his mother had given him for hitting me, we were inseparable. This made us an unbeatable combination with me furnishing the brains and him provided the brawn for most of our projects.
We often walked to the back part of the ranch where a couple small ponds which had been built by the government to collect rain water. They usually held some water during the rainy season but went dry soon after the rains stopped. They were dry so often that there were never any fish in them but they made a great place for us to swim during the wet season. One Saturday, when we approached one of the ponds, we saw about half a dozen little mud hens swimming around on the water. As soon as they spotted us, they took off like a shot, circled the other pond a quarter mile away and landed on it. Being typical boys who could never leave well enough alone, we decided that the thing to do was to go home, get a shotgun and shoot those ducks.
When we returned with my dad's old single shot twelve gauge shotgun, we crept up on the pond from below the dam so we would be hidden from the ducks as we approached. A few weeds growing along the top of the dam gave us good cover as we sneaked up on our unsuspecting quarry. Sure enough, six little mudhens, each about the size of a pigeon, were happily feeding on the duckweeds growing along the edges of the water.
Since it was my dad's shotgun, I got the honor of making the shot. I eased the barrel of the gun through the weeds, aimed carefully and waited for the ducks to get close enough together so I could bag more than one with a single shot. At just the right moment, I squeezed the trigger. The old gun roared, kicking me so hard that I did a couple backflips down the incline of the dam. This was my first time to shoot the shotgun and certainly wasn't ready for its recoil. The old shotgun had kicked me so hard that I never saw whether I had hit anything or not. When I gathered my wits, we climbed back up the dam to see what I had hit, three dead ducks floated on the muddy water.
We were ecstatic because we had actually killed something that we had shot at. I had a .22 caliber rifle but about the only thing that I was ever able to hit with it was a bottle or a tin can. We gathered up our ducks and headed home, buoyed by the thrill of the hunt.
It was somewhere along the way home that I began to consider the fact that dead ducks had to be cooked before they could be eaten, which meant that they had to be cleaned before they could be cooked. I also knew that there was no way that either of our mothers were going to do the messy job for us because even when our dads killed real ducks, they refused to clean them. I heard my mother say many times that she would clean chickens and turkeys, but when it came to ducks, she drew the line. The closer we got to home, the smaller and more scrawny those little mud hens looked. In a sudden magnanimous gesture, I told my cousin that since they were a bit on the small side and it would take all of them to make a good meal, he could have all three of them. This pleased him no end because he suspected that since I was the one who had killed the ducks, and it would be impossible to split three evenly, I would probably want at least two of them. Somewhere along the line, I forgot to mention that I had also heard that the reason they were called mud hens is because they tasted so much like mud that they were inedible.
Sure enough, as soon as he arrived home with his three dead ducks, his mother told him that the only way that those things were going to get cleaned and cooked was if he did it. She also told him that unlike chickens which were easy to scald to remove the feathers, ducks had to be plucked dry. Undaunted, he sat down in the middle of the living room floor with the three ducks in a dish pan and began the arduous task of plucking all those tiny feathers.
It just so happened that the local game warden picked that very afternoon to visit my cousin's dad who drove a roadgrader for the county. There was a huge lake up west of town where the locals liked to hunt ducks out of season and the game warden wanted my uncle to grade the road which ran around the lake so he could sneak up on the poachers and catch them in action.
By this time, my cousin had two of the ducks plucked as bare as a baby's butt and was nearly finished with the third one. When he heard a knock at the front door and looked up, all that he could see was the game warden with his smoky bear hat, badge and gun. His first thought was to get rid of the incriminating evidence so he leaped to his feet, snatched up the dishpan filled with dead birds and dry duck feathers and dashed through the house toward the back door.
They lived in what was known as a shotgun house. That is a house which has all the rooms built in a row; living room in front, two bedrooms in the middle and the kitchen at the back. One can look in the front door, through the bedroom doors and out the back door. By the time that my cousin reached the back door, there wasn't a single duck feather left in the dishpan; they were all floating in the air. He tossed the dead ducks to the dogs which were sleeping under the back porch but they just sniffed at them and went back to sleep. In final desperation, he threw the ducks into the hog pen where he knew that the hogs would eat anything. Sure enough, the evidence was gone in seconds.
For years after that, the game warden would be reduced to tears of laughter each time he told and retold the story about my cousin and the illegal ducks, always ending it by saying, "There were so many duck feathers floating in the air that it looked like the place was full of smoke. I thought the house was on fire."