“… yet those new restrictions have thus far only increased the value of fashionable plumes poached from the wild for the millinery trade. Some poachers continue to gun down entire flocks, oblivious to the state’s newly-formed Game and Fish department.”
—The Miami Evening Record, sometime in 1925
The clouds moved in and quieted the light from the sky, and the wind filled the absence left by the sharp sun now gone.
Bryan Marshall had his coffee and watched the light quieting. Two great egrets with their long tail plumes, the first Bryan’d seen this winter, flew low with the wind, above the pale green, treeless scrub dense with palmetto and brush that stretched for miles. Beyond that the egrets flew the eastern edge of the creek waters.
He thought about Remmy, back in his old man’s storehouse filled with nothing but dust since ’22, his friend confined to his wheelchair and confined to the glass clutched in his hands.
There was a price for it, for the booze, but at least his only friend had something to believe in. He’d be worse off without it. Bryan hoped they’d take care of him up at the veteran’s clinic, make him comfortable.
He thought of the girl, who always had to take care of someone, first her Pa for three long years and then her brother confined to his wheelchair. He saw the trace of hair—over her eyes, eyes the darkness of the creek, shy eyes afraid to look up. Her face in a thin, momentary smile, the lines of her face soft with youth still broken into the smile —he remembered that she had smiled, and he tried to remember if he had. She took his hat in her hand, he remembered that, and her face, that thin, tough face broke into the thin smile, her eyes embarrassed for it, or questioning it, and he had not smiled. He remembered now that he had not. But did she see his eyes?—his eyes different than his ragged and awkward stance that could never capture her attention, something worthy of hope in his eyes, but everything else worn out.
He leaned into that wind and drank down the last of the coffee, as a kingfisher came down, flying lower than the egrets, the shaggy fast-moving kingfisher turning in the same direction towards the creeks, in its flashy, noisy flight. The game warden put the thermos in his pack and set out following the fading trail of piercing calls.
The tire marks could have been days old, or they could not have been. But whoever it was, they wouldn’t stay out here long. Not before the rain. Not if they couldn’t help it. He hiked out between the two-rutted like a hunter scouting a new country. The coffee coating his throat, the sun gone and the clouds low above the scrub ahead, the wind turning the tall grass, he hiked out like a hunter scouting a new country.
Tommy leaned against the box of the 1-ton and downed the last of his coffee.
Let’s do it, Lonnie said.
Asika said nothing.
We got time, Lonnie said.
Tommy, the youngest of the men, walked over and got one of the heavier egrets and started with the longest plumes before he stretched the wings back, pulling the feathers along the underwing.
Lonnie did the same, whistling a song. It was a new song Tommy had heard once on the radio, a new kind of song he hadn’t heard before.
I know that one, he said.
Yeah, Lonnie said.
Bryan Marshall had some time til the rain, so he hiked further.
The tracks were wide, too wide for a Model T, probably a 1-ton.
He stopped where they turned off the worn two-track trail and cut new tracks in the soil. He followed the new tracks under the island of pines and back through another mile of open dry palmettos and brush. Who owned a 1-ton? There was Lowson’s new Indiana, but the old man never left Homesteadtown.
He wasn’t certain why he pursued the track after it split, the sky darkening. Something other than duty told him to continue. Duty, to Bryan Marshall, was something one had to be cautious of. It could turn out as badly as any temptation that calls to a man. It wasn’t instinct either that told him to pursue the new line. Because if it had been, he wouldn’t think about it, would he?
He kept on steady yet slower than a march, fixated on the damn tracks that could be a week old, his hat low out of habit, keeping on steady towards the dark waters of the creek ahead, and he stopped to turn back, a good five or six miles out now, when he saw three vultures, intent sentries circling unrushed.
And he knew the tracks were not a week old.
Through the rain a faint, cold touch in the wind, he continued and saw where the men had left the carcasses left for the vultures and coons. There had been about forty of them, tricolored herons and several of the last curlews that would be migrating south, and what the men had really came for—the great egrets in their breeding plumage. The long, delicate tail plumes and the wing feathers all vanished, except just a few left behind in the tracks through the muck.
The fire pit’s embers cold, Bryan examined where they’d discarded the broken knife blade—and the half-burnt tins, bottles, an empty box of rifle rounds, Western semi auto, .243 Cal, not your typical fowl load, and left their tracks, at least three different boot sizes.
Something crashed in the tall grass maybe fifty yards off. A few yards closer, he heard the bird rustling in the grass, struggling to fly. A big spoonbill. She made it another ten yards before falling back to earth.
The rain finally came. It came down, heavy now, the tall grass bowing under its sudden force.
The wounded spoonbill kicked and rustled, but her flight gone, the long, oddly shaped bill opening and closing, the bill made for fishing creek and marsh bottom, her leg twisted upwards under her wing half blown off from rifle shot.
He stood a yard away, and with one shot from his revolver ended the fight.
The rain came down hard, erasing the men’s boot prints and tire tracks.
In the morning, the rain’s still steady remnants beat on the tin roof. The last of darkness drained from the gray-blue. Left with his fragment of a dream, he woke from the numb weightlessness of sleep.
In the last moments of his dream, he rose to stand and could see through the rain up to the big bending branches above. Off balance at first, as if the rain had weighed him down until, breathing quickly, he could not get enough air, his steps becoming lighter and lighter, so light, his muscles moving before he told them to, his consciousness catching up to the movement, an image of fate, his breath fast and steady now, an outward strength cut the air, his shadow transfigured spreading above the branches, upwards into the colorless sky.
He lay awake on the hard sheets, awake with eyelids closed.
They wouldn’t be doing this much longer. Wouldn’t be able to.
But it was good work, good cash, while it lasted, and he didn’t have to answer to some old sonofabitch and sleep in a dirty building with the closing-in walls.
The wind came right into the 1-ton.
He remembered some of the words to that song.
He was sick of all those new happy songs on the radio that rhymed.
Standin’ at the window, feelin’ kind of glum,
I went out walking…
That long road crooked with yesterday’s steps
Blistered feet, no end in sight
I got the blues
Longing for rest, but I got to keep on’
Blistered feet, no end in sight
They took the rutted trail north. The road would be coming through soon, right ‘bout here. Lonnie didn’t think they’d finish it. There’d be no way in hell, Lonnie said. But Tommy knew they had their oil man’s money now, and no more than ten miles away, a thousand men turnin’ over dirt and rocks to hold back all that water, there wasn’t much that’d stop them.
Tommy couldn’t remember the next line of the song. He looked up to the open sky, a fish hawk flying straight for the treeline with an eagle nearly twice as large in pursuit. Tommy turned as the eagle shot into the path of the smaller hawk, which finally dropping its prey, headed off into the strand of pines. The eagle turned sharp in a maneuver that surprised Tommy, and it caught the relinquished fish in its sharp talons.
Yeah he’d have one with his only friend, who wheeled over to the stacked crates and picked up the fifth of the dark stuff, pouring a glass half-full, before cutting the dark stuff with the syrup.
Bryan walked over, took the glass. The syrup didn’t take the burn from the bootlegged rye, as strong as it was dark.
The old storehouse barren, those wide shelves empty, except the lifeless International parked in the back, and the half-empty bottle and the lantern on the stacked crates, a light flannel shirt hanging on a nail, and the neat rows of empty bottles lining another open crate.
He took another sip from the glass.
There against the wall, beside a rusted tool box, leaned the old cane poles Remmy had kept all this time. No lines no more and covered in dust, the two cane poles that had probably been propped against this wall for fifteen damn years, that probably hadn’t been used since they were just boys out at High Point, just two boys camping and fishing, before they knew anything. Without the knowledge that would soon come, they had drank and they had watched the fire. They paddled Remmy’s Pa’s canoe down, and they brought some of the old man’s whiskey. It was late when they got to the point and Bryan had laid back against a downed pine, his shoulders that good feeling of soreness, his legs stretched out over the pine needles.
You remember when we canoed down to high point? Bryan asked his only friend.
Yeah, I remember. It was a cold night.
It was. He remembered that. Remmy had started a good fire, and there was talk of girls and the baitfish they saw jumping, Bingham’s new Ford, who was the best shortstop. A wild-grinning Remmy stoked the fire good and looked at it like he wanted to walk into the flames, and when the night’s wind picked up there wasn’t nothing in the fifth left. It was a cold, crisp night—
It was a long time ago, Bryan said.
All those baitfish jumping right off the point, I remember that, Remmy said.
Right through the middle of the map. A line bolder than the tributaries and unnamed mangrove tunnels, but narrower than Lostman’s or Broad River, it’s called Taylor Creek.
Yet it ain’t really a creek.
A dozen shallow creeks, a web of them through the gut of the glades.
The skiff skimmed the buried slow ebb. The current pushed south without a ripple, even with the waters high from the rains.
Tommy’s uncle had called it the mud creeks.
A cypress of sparrows on the shore chirped until the boat neared, and they scattered.
The outboard smoked some, but, man, it did the job, the skiff running up on plane.
Where the creeks split like a log cracked down the middle, Lonnie throttled further south through the deeper water, the Johnson outboard’s ticking, metal hum still an unfamiliar, unnatural sound.
They headed south towards that point of land that ran between the creek and Whitewater.
The game warden came in through Whitewater, named for the more clear, shallow waters above the limestone, around to the western shore of the point, being sure to keep the skiff from the larger rocks and snag pines until the cut in the rocks where he drifted it in. He secured the line to the trunk of an old pond apple tree, the skiff flat-bottomed back in the shade bordering water and land.
Up on higher ground, he set up camp below a willow, a wide proud specimen with sturdy trunk and long-hanging leaves. The sleeping bag unrolled under the canvas Game & Fish-service tent exactly like the Army-issued ones, and dinner waiting in the pot, Bryan finally pulled off his boots and socks to let them dry beside the downed pines cracking in the fire. He ate his dinner from the still-hot pan, the light wind from Florida Bay mixing smoke into dusk.
It was a moonless night.
He leaned back against the hard bark of the willow, watching the smoke swirling until it was barely visible against the dusk, the way he would, nineteen and alone, on those metal cold nights, a kid in another country. He’d watch that same smoke. Even with Remmy there and all the A.E.F. and the Poilu, when he’d watch the smoke, it was just him alone on his own. There was not a single hawk nor crow nor sparrow that wasn’t scared away.
Down here, though, he had company at his small camp. He listened to the faint chirping dripping down from the lone, tiny sparrow, a ghost of a bird, calling softly and skipping between two branches.
The sparrow stopped on the low branch and watched the figure below, another animal of dusk.
The small fire burned low, the smoke only a thin fog, until the flames faded to embers, and he went in to the tent.
He woke to the sound of rifle shot. Shot after shot. Ripping through the morning. He leaned up and reached over for his boots and gun and his hat.
As the men would reload, one would fly up, and the entire flock of egrets would follow, in a half circle before eventually flying closer to the men. Fearful. They beat their wings and squawked. But they wouldn’t leave.
What dumb birds, one of the men shouted.
They’re trying to save each other. They could just leave.
But they didn’t.
The men shot every one.
As the warden shouted out, the men turned. They stood, allowing him to walk closer. They didn’t say anything, just stood there, until the third man, his beard not disguising his youth, came out from the palmettos, holding the .243 Cal. No more than twenty yards off. It should’ve gone differently. He had forgotten there were three men.
He stopped, shook his head, stared at the young man, who stared back, his eyes squinted into an expression between hatred and sadness, the .243 Cal aimed. A lone hawk screamed and drifted above the men. The man with the rifle fired one more shot, and it was over.
is a journalist. His short stories have been published, or are forthcoming, in the journals Potomac Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, The Litchfield Review, Platte Valley Review, Pindeldyboz, and Wilderness House Literary Review. Roger recently completed his MFA in creative writing/fiction at Florida Atlantic University. Roger also writes an outdoor blog at www.rogersoutdoorblog.com.