Thursday, November 6, 2008

"Nor'Easter Cans"

The idea for this story came purely from the frustration of working on Thanksgiving, my personal favorite holiday. Shamus, such as he is, helped alleviate those frustrations. Purely a fictional character, I like ole Shamus and may have him hunting elsewhere sometime soon.

NOVEMBER around the turn of the century

It hit, really fast, and seemingly in an extremely short amount of time the skies turned dark and the temps dropped. Shortly thereafter, the blue norther’ set in, starting with rain and high winds, and progressing to sleet, accompanied by those same winds. Weather such as this was known to shake the very timbers of ordinary folk, driving most inside to the comfortable climes of wood furnaces and the roasted holiday goose. During the ride from town, he merely chuckled at the empty streets, and watched the streets only other inhabitant earning his wages.

Startled by the “clippity-clop” of the horse’s hooves coming from the unlit end of the brick side street, the lamplighter turned, almost dropping the wick and pole. Gathering himself and recognizing the driver of the horse, shouted above the wind, “Rough out Shamus, it be, no’ a da’ fer gallivantin’ abou’!”

“Jes ligh’ yer lamps Gavin, I’ll bring ye’ back somethin’ fer yer table. S’pose it’ll be yer table for Thanksgiving this year?”

“S’pose so Shamus, jes make sure ye’ brang us sometin back ter eat.”

With that, the town’s lamplighter, and the only other person brave enough and desperate enough to be out in such weather, moved on down the line, lighting the unlit lamps as he went. Strange to be lighting lamps and not yet having greeted noon, but this was the Eastern seashore, this was November, and this was going to be a storm to remember.

If you asked the townspeople of Easton, Maryland about Shamus MacTavish, one would draw some curious looks. And, why not? Fact is, in the early 1900’s, only the truly destitute among us live a solitary life. Can’t really blame the good folks of Easton for believing there was something very strange about Shamus. But, Shamus was simply cut from a different cloth. Leaving the Cromarty area of Scotland during what became known as the Highland Potato Famine, Shamus spent months on a rickety derelict, eventually landing in Easton, Maryland. Shamus made his lot in life running crab traps along the rocky shores of the Chesapeake during the warmer months and gunning the market for “cans” during the winter. At two bits a bird, don’t reckon anyone would think as curiously of Shamus if they knew.

Opening the right hand reign Shamus directed Polly, his bullheaded old nag, off the brick street and onto the muddy trail leading seemingly out to sea. Staring down the iron-gray skyline, again he chuckled as if to say, “If they only knew.”

After a bit of a ride with the only sounds being the increasingly loud crashing of the surf and Polly’s incessant snorting, proclaiming her displeasure of being off sure-footing and tromping through the mud, the team approached the mice laden shack, which really served as nothing more than a wind break that Shamus had devised along the shores of the Chesapeake. Dismounting from the horse, who snorted with the delight of having her burden lifted, he led Polly to the south side of the shanty in the hopes of protecting her from the most prevailing of winds. After tying the horse off to a heavy piece of driftwood he had collected, he watered her and placed an abundant amount of hay on the ground.

Patting the horse, mostly for his own peace of mind, he mumbled to himself, “thar ye go Pol, ol’ girl. Shud be enoug’ fer the nigh’ anyhow.”

In the back of his mind, he knew that if it got much worse, he’d bring “Ol’ Pol” in for the night, no matter how unbearable it would make things.

The outside chores done, he stepped inside. Dodging the piece of salt cured venison hanging from the center rafter he brought over the week prior, he moved to the back of the shack and lit the stove.

“She’ll be warm enoug’ to cook chowda soon.” And, with that, he turned to finish one last chore. He knew where they’d be, the back-bay where the wild celery flourished. Wouldn’t be much left, but if history held true, they’d seek the refuge of the back-bay, and ride out the storm there. And so, Shamus set off for the little outcropping of rocks that marked the mouth of the creek which fed the small bay itself. During high tide, the rocks were barely visible above the chop, but during a low tide, Shamus knew he could get out close to where the cans would be loping past, on their way to food and solitude.

Reaching the jetty, Shamus climbed over the rocks and upon finding a suitable place out of the wind, ocean spray and sleet, nestled in for a bit of watching in hopes of finding out that the cans had been pushed down from wherever it was they came from. Seemingly, these birds never make an appearance around the Chesie until a very strong storm pushes through. Because this had been a strange year consisting of mild and dry weather, this was the best chance so far he had to gun these birds. Peering out from crystal blue eyes, through the clouds and sleet, he was greeted with what he wanted and maybe even what he needed to see. Out in the mist and chop, forging across the high seas perilously close to the rising waves, and barreling toward that secluded bay were CANS in huge numbers. Enormous flocks rifled past Shamus hidden between the gray rocks, each one larger than the next. “V” after “V” of drake cans with their rust-red colored heads cruised past. It didn’t take him long to realize tomorrow would be a good day. It also didn’t take him long to realize he should have brought more clothes.

After he was satisfied that he would not only make a pretty penny at market but also be well fed over the holiday season, he made the trek back to the shack, and as he did so, he began to notice that the sleet was turning to snow. At present, it was a mix of rain, sleet and snow, but Shamus reckoned there’d be a fresh blanket of snow on the ground for Thanksgiving.

Reaching the shack, he made quick work of unsaddling Polly and wrapping her in blankets. Then, needing to get off his wet, cold clothes to hang dry above the stove, he started inside. Seeing this, Polly let loose with a snort and whinny combination that Shamus knew was his old friend’s way to say, “Please take me.”

Reassuring her that he had no plans to keep her outside in this mess, Shamus stepped inside and muttered under his breath, “Gonna be a helluva nigh’ wit tha’ nag in here too.” Outside, Polly must have overheard the comment, as she snorted in displeasure.

That night anyone that might have been peaking through the window into the candlelit room, would have been met with one of the strangest sights ever to grace the Eastern seaboard. On a tiny cot sat a rather burly fellow with a long graying beard in long johns, old woolen clothes hanging above the stove atop which sat a brewing pot of coffee, and a big, stinking, brown horse who looked like she really didn’t care being so close to her master. Shamus, for his part, had to chuckle at the thought as well.

Not long into the night, the rickety door finally gave way to the pounding wind and flew open with such force that Polly almost crushed Shamus in a leap. Racing to the door in hopes of bracing it against the wind, Shamus, clad only in long johns stared out into the emptiness, across what Shamus knew was the rock and sand that defines the Eastern seaboard coastline. Knowing tomorrow he’d be gunning for cans, he couldn’t help but wonder aloud, “wonder what the poor folks are doing?” And, with that, closed and braced the door, quieted the old nag Polly, and went sound to sleep.

That morning, as if being awoken by some unnatural force, he got up and prepared a breakfast which he considered fit for a king consisting of bitter brewed coffee and steel cut oats, sprinkled with what little sugar he could spare. Realizing he was in no rush, he waited until just before sunrise to put back on his wool trousers, shirt and old mackinaw overcoat. Again leading Polly from the warm hut, tying her off and making sure she had hay and water, he set off down now frozen and snow covered trail toward to rocky outcropping.

With the wind abated and the snow having stopped sometime during the night, Shamus was greeted along the weathered path with snow glittering in the sunlight, and felt a peace in his heart. The peace he felt was strange and he knew what needed to be done. Before taking another step, he knelt down in the 6 inches of fresh snow and said a soft little prayer, way too soft for such a gruff man, and thanked The Creator for such a day.

“There”, Shamus thought, “tha’ twer somethin’ I have needed to do for qui’ a while”, and with a start, made off for the rock pile.

Considering the still calm left in the wake of the departed storm, Shamus climbed nimbly into a shooting position among the rocks that, had the wind and snow been whipping about, he would have avoided.

There among the rocks, with his trusty yet fairly new L.C. Smith double gun perched in his lap, Shamus looked up and was greeted with a welcome sight. Just as he had hoped, the swarms of big canvasbacks were picking up little by little, flock by flock, from the flats of wild celery, mussel beds, and protected waters of the small bay, and were beginning to head back out to the bigger waters of the Chesapeake. Shamus knew the gunning would be swift, and just as this thought entered his mind, they appeared. A huge flock came barreling down the little creek in hopes of making the big water. The closer they came, the faster it appeared they flew. Closer and faster still, until Shamus could here their mighty wing beats only inches above the water; he could here the “ching” of the cash register and could feel the fire while sitting on the lamplighter Gavin’s hearth. In one motion, the safety off and hunter rising to meet the mighty hordes from the North, one moment and the feeling he’d waited so long for would finally be here………one moment.


As the clouds pushed from the nether land that was your dreams, it becomes apparent that true to form, you’d hit the snooze three too many times. Although the alarm clock finally did its job, it was a half hour too late. Crazily, you toss on your clothes and almost tear the dog’s head off as you pushed him in his box. The wife, still asleep, quietly wishes you good luck as you kiss her forehead.

Thankful you had loaded the four-wheeler and blind bag last night, you tear out from the driveway, almost knocking the neighbor’s mailbox out of the ground in the process and hustle off down the road. Once on the interstate, you turn on the local radio station for a weather report as you missed it last night.

After a couple of songs, the morning radio personality begins his daily diatribe, “Good morning everyone and Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!!!! Today’s gonna be a bad one folks, with the storm that blew in last night accompanied by high winds and plummeting temperatures, it’ll be a Thanksgiving to remain in doors with your……….”

And, with that announcement, you tune the radio out and think about your dream and mumble to yourself, “Nah, couldn’t be……………….could it?”

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