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by Roger Pinckney | May 7, 2020 | BIRD HUNTING, HUNTING, Slider

It was a Federal Criminal Conspiracy: three boys, a cannon barrel and scaup to drive them crazy.

The saltwater scaup are mostly gone now, but back when I was a boy they would raft offshore, a thousand, ten thousand at a time. It would take a booming gale to get them moving into the ponds where we could hunt them, but when it blew that hard, we’d be laid ashore, too. We tried to sneak in open water but they would take wing, circling 500 yards out of gun-range like vast clouds of smoke before settling in, a mile or more away.

I don’t know what happened to all those birds, but you can’t blame their demise on us, though we damned sure tried. Me and Grayson and Yancey, young and full of fool ideas, a half-century ago. Those birds liked to drove us crazy. Maybe they did. We entered into a Federal Criminal Conspiracy, figuring to be the Last of the Outlaw Gunners, with a punt gun like they used to shoot scaup in the olden days.

Didn’t matter if scaup tasted like anchovies…didn’t matter if the law frowned on cannonading ducks. We’d lash it to the skiff, pile on brush till we looked like a floating marsh island and drift down on them. One shot would be all we’d need.

And such a gun fell right out of the sky, the beginnings of it anyway, a twenty-millimeter automatic cannon Mudcat Yarboro pulled from Miss Lucile’s strawberry patch.

The plane nicked the house, tore off a downspout, busted the clothesline and broke down the chicken fence. The pilot came floating down, half a mile away, then dangled by his parachute, swinging like a pendulum from a sapling hickory.

He swung there awhile, the neighbors loving Miss Lucille the way they did.

Mudcat was Yancey’s uncle, a well-driller, first to the scene. Mudcat had no real use for a cannon barrel, but it seemed too good a thing to waste. Yancey stole it first chance he got.

Grayson didn’t know a damn thing about women, never did learn, but he was a cracker-jack when it came to things mechanical. Some sort of breech-loader, number fours in junk cannon shell casings? They were easy to find in those days when we were getting cranked up For Vietnam.

Grayson got to working on the shells before he got to working on the gun, cutting wads out of felt gaskets with another shell and a 36-ounce ball peen hammer he called The Big Bopper.

The primers were big as hearing aid batteries. Grayson knocked them out with a long punch and The Big Bopper, but he never found anything to go back in the holes. He was figuling up some kind of bushings so he could use shotgun primers, but it all finally got too much and he threw the barrel and the shells into the devil vine behind the garage and went to patching his Packard.

That Packard was a moonshiner’s delight – ’56 Clipper, black and white and big, with a trunk like a phone booth laid Sideways. Loaded with Mason jars, the Level Ride would jack the rear end up and if the revenuers didn’t hear all the clinking, they’d think you were running empty. But we were too young to run shine just yet.

We were out looking for wood ducks one afternoon and a six-foot gator was sunning himself right in the middle of the road. Grayson locked up the brakes and we all hit the road running. The gator got to the water but Yancey got a hold of his tail. When the gator bowed up and made a snatch at him, Yancey flung it over his shoulder.

I was second in line and it was like catching a chainsaw with a stuck throttle. We made a gator sandwich, Yancey on top, me on the bottom, the gator in between. “Gimme a rope! Gimme a rag! Gimme anything!”

We went round and round in the dirt. Grayson went running for the Packard and came back with a roll of electrical tape and we made a couple of tight wraps around the gator’s snout. Duct tape would have saved us a whole lot of trouble, but we didn’t have duct tape in those days. We’d near-bouts got our wind back when Grayson asked, “Now what?”

It was a common question in those days, right after we’d got halfway through something really stupid. Yancey mopped his face, grinned. “Let’s turn him a-loose in Blocker’s Store”

Blocker’s was way down on Seaside Road, a dog-on-the-porch place where everybody shopped before they got cars and could drive to the Piggly Wiggly. Grayson squinted at Yancey and a smile flickered around the corners of his mouth. “Load his ass up,” he said.

I got the snout and Yancey got the tail. It was another scramble but we got him into the trunk.

About three miles down the road, there came a thumping and a scratching. A wisp of burnt rubber rolled from beneath the floorboards and the Packard settled on its haunches with a long wheeze.

Grayson hollered, “He done et through the wires!”

We pulled onto the side of’ the road, back wheels rubbing the insides of the fenders, a-wha, wha, wha. Yancey ran back, popped the trunk, and the gator came out Like a spring, hissing and snapping lest one of us tried to lay a hand on him again. Nobody did. He scooted across the road, took to the ditch and pretty soon, all we could see was bushes twitching. Then we chanced a look. A bundle of wires big as a carrot was chawed through and dead-shorted to the fenderwell like so much burnt spaghetti.

We limped back to town, hungry, tired, dirty, no ducks, no gator, no tires. And that’s how Grayson came to give up on the punt gun and turn to working on the Packard.

But meanwhile, me and Yancey got impatient.

The boy ain’t right,” Yancey said when he saw the cannon barrel in the thicket behind the garage. We were down to riding our bicycles, Yancey a single-speed Huffy, me a three-speed Sears and Roebuck. I lashed the barrel to my crossbar and went wobbling down the road, the barrel klinkety-clanking against the frame.

Mudcat’s shop was on the edge of town, next door to the Huck and Buck Community Center, the colored dance hall where the Saturday night straight razors cut three ways, high and wide and frequent. The shop yard was a litter of rusty pipe and cable, bald tires, busted cylinder blocks, trucks that would never run again, saplings and bushes grown up through fenders and frames, all decorated with a generous sprinkling of beer cans, paper plates and plastic cups blown across from the Huck and Buck.

You couldn’t see the tops of the workbenches for the clutter of tools. There was a pipe cutter, drill press, electric welder and a venerable case of dynamite drip, drip, dripping nitroglycerine into a bucket on the shelf below. Whenever the dynamite went dry and the bucket got full, Mudcat would pour the nitro back into the box and start the process all over again.

“Find me some welding rods,” I said.

Four hours later we had us a swivel-gun muzzle-loader that would throw a pound of shot. Grayson took it better than we expected. He scratched his chin, scratched his fanny, walked in little circles. Then he picked up the gun and held it to the light.

“Like a red-bone mule,” he said… “dangerous at both ends. We got to proof it.”

Yancey cast his eyes at the soggy dynamite, but Grayson cut him short.

“Don’t even think about that! We need us some black powder. That gator eat the Sacred Scroll?” Grayson was asking about the roll of toilet paper we kept stashed in a bread bag in the corner of the trunk.

“You got to crap?”

“No, but we’ll need some wadding.”

We were out at an old sand quarry where they dug for fill to fix the county roads. There was leftover dirt here and there, so we pulled behind a sizable pile, drug the punt gun around to the other side. Grayson broke out a cherry bomb and one of those old brass 12-gauge shotgun shells the government bought for the Winchester trench guns during the First War. He bit the fuse, pulled it out of the cherry bomb, threaded it through the touch hole and commenced to ladle powder with that brass shell, once, twice…

“Great God A-mighty,” Yancey said.

Grayson kept dipping, three times, four. Then came toilet paper and the shot that streamed down the bore with a dry rattling hiss.

“Little more…little more…there!”

When Grayson topped it off with another generous swipe off the Sacred Scroll, she was plumb hill. We propped it up, fired the fuse and beat feet.

There was something mighty satisfying in that black-powder sound—a low, throaty earthquake ku-whump and a cloud of smoke bigger than a cow. We scrambled around the backside of that dirt pile and the punt gun was gone.

“You done blowed it all to hell,” Yancey said.

We were looking for pieces in the tops of the trees when my foot hung on the muzzle. The whole blessed thing had drove itself clean into the ground. Yancey scratched the ground, got a handhold just like he did with that gator tail. But he couldn’t budge it.

Y’all got a shovel?”

Next time there was only two scoops of powder, three of shot and the wads Grayson cut with the Big Bopper. We swung back by Mudcat’s again and stole a five-foot stick of inch-and-a-quarter iron pipe, drove over to the funeral home for one of those big cardboard casket boxes. Grayson tapped the pipe halfway into the ground with the Big Bopper, I set the gun to swiveling in it, and we propped up the casket box about 40 paces out.

And then they elected me, or maybe it was nominated, I’m not sure of the politics. Grayson bit the fuse out of another cherry bomb. I’d have a 50-foot head start, I reckoned. But I didn’t. I was choking smoke and spitting soot and Grayson was counting up holes in the casket box when Yancey found the punt gun. The pipe was bent off level with the ground and the barrel was buried in pinestraw, a hundred feet back in the bushes.

“A six-foot pattern,” Grayson hollered…”a pellet every single inch!” That’s what I think he said, anyway, my ears ringing so.

“And we gonna get in a boat with this beast?” I asked.

“Well, it was your own damn idea.”


Grayson said it again, mouthing it, so he’d know I’d understand. But I pretended I didn’t. And thus, our Federal Criminal Conspiracy came to an abrupt, and timely, end. Not sure if I’m protected by a Statute of Limitations, so keep mum, y’all.
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