November 03, 2010
With one pull of the trigger, all hell broke loose.
Illustration by Remington.
Through his hand-held telescope, Frank O'Ruark, a big-boned man with a sandy thatch of hair that shone brilliant in the summer sun when he was hatless, had watched the storm building all the day long from his screened back porch and it was from this station that he surveyed the elements of a seething fury gathering its forces to do no good.
The rolling, punching ebony clouds fascinated him. And as the tempest raged, waterfowl in great echelons marked the violent sky as they set their wings to sail into Pamlico Sound'¦.a vast, watery land that hugs North Carolina's Outer Banks.
Hour after hour he maintained surveillance, and he saw them all'¦.the pintails, redheads, brant, and the Canada geese. His deep blue eyes captured the widgeon, black ducks, bufflehead, and scaup and the canvasbacks. And it was the canvasbacks, the silver backs, that he watched with merriment in his eyes. Cans were bringing five dollars apiece on the market, and he figured he could get into the thick of them and maybe get two or three night shots before they wised up. And even if he got but only one shot, well, he could shoot down a hundred or more. Once he killed 250 cans with two shots.
A strong wind came and throttled the house. Frank retreated into the house, and when he reappeared, he was fitted with a thick wool coat and a wool hat that covered his ears and the nape of his neck. And he remembered the year 1899 when the hurricane San Cirisco swept over the land killing people, splintering homes, and putting down ships and their crews along the coast. A mighty storm it was. He hoped he'd never see another of its make.
"Oy, mate," he thought to himself as he kept his telescope fixed to the storm and to the hordes of ducks gathering in the sound to wait it out. And in his head, he could hear them purring like cats when hungry for milk.
"Ut'll be a hot night this even', mate" he said. "A hot night to do duckin', mate. Ut'll be a time to tell yore grandchildren if yer make ut back to tell." And he laughed to himself.
Daron McLhinney, a small man slight of build but strong, and whose ancestry was Scottish, was down on the beach observing the storm. He stood there as the high waves came rolling in to meet with the land, where they crashed with a mighty roar.
McLhinney was a lifesaver'¦a coast watcher'¦and he knew there would be work to do by morning. He knew for certain that Frank O'Ruark would be out there in the turmoil for a night shot. None of the other market hunters would do it, but he knew Frank, and Frank, regardless of the punishment, would be out there tonight. Years later, when a writer came through the Banks, he talked to Daron McLhinney because Frank O'Ruark, now dead, had left his mark as the most famous market hunter to ply the trade up and down the Atlantic Coast.
"Frank was a rascal," said Mclhiney. "But even a mon like Frank needed a lookin' after. I couldn't let a mon go down wi' out tryin.' Frank would've done the same fur me. But I truly believe to this day, even tho' Frank never said a word, that th' only way 'e went out is 'cause 'e knew I'd come alookin.' "
With the punt gun loaded and the skiff's bottom greased like a newborn baby's rump, the oarlocks padded to keep from squeaking while rowing, Frank set out.
O'Ruark, a man with a mission, stopped at the edge of the marsh grass, and now before him was the great Pamlico Sound in its fury. He pulled back into the wind-swept marsh and anchored. And all around him were ducks of every make. But it was the Cans he was after, and to them he gave of his time, his talent.
Because of the storm, which continued to bellow, the night hurriedly rushed in. Frank lit the bow lantern, checked over his punt gun, weighed anchor, bellied down in the boat, and with two short paddles worked the shallow-draft boat around the point and into the sound he went'¦after ducks he went as had his daddy and his granddaddy before him.
It started to snow, causing an evil hiss as its wetness struck the hot glass box housing the lantern. All the while it was getting colder. Much colder. But flat in the boat, Frank was protected from the slashing wind. Once he had the urge to turn back, to return to the house and bask in its warmth and to drink hot tea. He didn't. The market hunters' blood ran thick in his veins. He kept after the ducks' voices. His seasoned night eyes hunted for bobbing silhouettes, and in time he found them. In the shine of his bow light, he had never in all of his market hunting days seen such numbers of floating Cans with their high-fire engine-colored heads. Before him was a rich deposit.
"Mate," he whispered to himself, "there's thousands o' 'em. Maybe a hundred thousand." So close was he now that ducks bumped the boat as if it was nothing more than a floating board. "Mate," he said quietly, "Oy'm liable to collect a thousand Cans tonight with one shot." And like a muscle-honed mountain lion flickering its tail before a kill, so Frank O'Ruark prepared himself.
"I was getting' nervous," said Daron McLhinney to the writer. "The blow was strange'¦too strange to suit a mon o' th' weather like myself. It had gone too quiet o' a sudden. Ice was on the' way as sure as shootin.' An' there had not been ice in many a year on th' sound.
"These things I was thinkin' when I put on my hat an' coat an' made my way to O'Ruark's home to see of 'e was there. It was a worthless trip, for I knew where 'e was. 'E was out there in th' sound getting' ready to make a night shot. But I had to make sure. I knew 'e would take a shot iffen th' Atlantic Ocean were to freeze over. That 'e would.
"An' when I got to th' 'ouse, I saw not a lamp aflame. An' goin' down to th' boat 'ouse, I found th' doors open an' th' skiff was gone. Come morn,' for as good as Frank was in th' marsh, 'e'd be needin' help."
The wind went dead, the snow vanished, and many stars lit the sky above for Frank O'Ruark to lay witness to. But the cold had become colder.
He got a good hold on the gun, felt his blood turn warm, and then, taking a deep breath, he yelled. Pandemonium came upon the ducks. Their red eyes lit the dark as red coals. Widespread depression entered their hearts. Wild alarm was with them, and they lifted en masse. Blue-gray feet began to race across the water. Wings pumping.
O'Ruark fired, for he was in his glory.
The flash of the small cannon-like gun lit up the night. Cans dropped by the score, and there was all manner of death and dying and feathers and bones across the water, for he, Frank O'Ruark, had shot a tunnel through their numbers. The perfect night shot.
But something had happened, something he had not envisioned, something went astray. The gun had jumped its mount and gone straight back into O'Ruark's face, knocking out three front teeth, crushing his jaw, peeling his scalp, smashing his nose, snapping the wrist bones in his right hand, and punching him out of the boat and into the water into the night.
"I was on a sand spit," said Daron McLhinney, an' saw th' gun's flash an' I heard th' gun's thunder. Tis a fool, said I."
O'Ruark, for he was near blind, splashed around until he found the skiff. Then took stock of his dilemma. And when he did, he knew he was in a crisis. Hard times had come upon him. Stunned as he was, he somehow, with his good left arm and hand, got into his boat, where he suddenly became terribly cold.
Gone were the paddles. Gone was the big gun. Gone was the lantern that had passed from generation to generation. But he took no pity to himself. He knew that he had killed several hundred, maybe more, cans with one night shot. This he knew, for in his mind he could still hear the shot from the gun raking through the hordes of cans. The muzzle flash so bright it seemed to have stretched a hundred yards.
Moving his good left arm along his side, he found a piece of a front tooth. And when he tossed it from the boat, he did not hear it make the tiniest splash. His heart fluttered. The Sound was freezing. He had never known this body of water to freeze but his daddy had told him about the time it froze through and through. Frank O'Ruark was but a boy when he heard the story.
"A kettle of hot tea would suit now wud't mate," he said to himself.
"Don't know how I knew, but I did. Frank O'Ruark was in a fix," said McLhinney. "But I knew 'e'd las' th' night. Frank O'Ruark was a mon. 'E was 10 times a common mon."
Frank slept fitfully through the cold night, for his body was racked with pain. And when it got light enough to see, he maneuvered so that he was sitting halfway up. Then he saw that his world was frozen, for before him was ice and more ice. And the dead cans. A massacre it was.
Daron McLhinney, with the new day before him, knocked the dottle from his pipe, placed the pipe in his right front coat pocket. Then extending his hand-held telescope, he examined and saw nothing but ice. Then he ventured out onto the ice, a bit shaky.
O'Ruark knew that he somehow had to get back to land and had crawled out of the boat in much pain and began to claw his way over the ice with his good left arm. Soon his fingernails had been torn from his fingers as he inched across the ice. "Least, mate, they'll know oy didn't die bunched up in the skiff without givin' it a tick.
"The ice held," McLhinney said, as he went further and further out into the sound. "I kept searching with the telescope but could see nothing but ice. Maybe Frank was dead and I should turn back to save my own flesh. But I didn't. I couldn't.
"I was out maybe two miles when I spied an object through the telescope. At first I thought it was just a box. But perhaps it was Frank. I moved across the ice as fast as I could and several times I fell hard. Again I put the telescope to my right eye an' saw that it was no box. It was a man. It had to be Frank. I put all I had left in me, hav'n no time to rest, and went full steam ahead. When I drew close my heart was almost ripped from my chest. It seemed that Frank had hit soft ice. Frank was flounderin.'
"Frank! Frank! Keep a fightin!' It's me, Daron McLhinney! I could see that 'e was most done in an' I was wheezin' mighty hard myself. Most out o' breath I was. I was about 30 yards from Frank when I went through the ice. Th' water most robbed me o' my breath, but I lost not a minute getting' out.
An' Frank was still alive. I took th' rope I had brought along an' made a loop an' tossed it to him. The rope fell short, for it had no weight to thrust it forth. I took off my right shoe, tied the rope to it an' gave it a sound heave, but it fell short. I had to get closer, so I got down on my belly an' began crawlin.' By this time I was beginnin' to shake from th' cold. As I crawled, I could feel the ice wobblin' beneath me. We'd both be goners if th' ice gave way on me again. I made another toss and this time the shoe landed on top of Frank.
"By now Frank was in th' last stage of life. 'E was most gone. But th' strength came from somewhere, an' 'e got th' rope an' fastened it around his body. Then I began to pull. An when 'e was close, just yards from me, I saw his shape. His face was th' worst o' his lot'¦torn an' ripped. His head had been gashed an' both meat an' hair were frozen in his blood. His broken right wrist hung like a wet rag. Frank looked old an' worn.
"I, with my hands under his armpits, pulled 'im back until I found hard ice under my feet. I soon had 'im wrapped in a woolen blanket that I had in my backpack. I hadn't stayed submerged in my own break through the ice long enough to saturate my pack an' so the blanket was still dry. Then I got some hot tea down his gullet, an' then I took a swig. We rested there maybe 15 minutes. Suddenly I heard the ice start creekin' an' moanin.' An' then it began to splinter. I fixed a quick harness, got Frank into it, an' started movin' as fast as I could over the ice. But I got 'im back to the shore.
"Once I had 'im beached, I left an' ran to the Gaskill 'ouse to get the wagon. Lem did th' drivin'.
"Frank was where I left 'im. Then we got 'im to the doc's house an' got 'im fixed up best as the doc could.
"The ice was gone in two days an' me an' Lem went out to where Frank had made th' shot an' picked up four hundred an' 23 cans. But Frank said he knew 'e had killed twice that number. This 'e said till the day 'e died at 97 years of age. Maybe 'e did. 'E was 67 when 'e made the night shot.