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  • Betty Brandt Passick

The Duck Blind

From Gangster in Our Midst (2017)

by Betty Brandt Passick

Ice fragments in the pre-dawn November 1933 air sparred with Marshal Sweeney Delaney’s face as he packed his Browning A-5 twelve-gauge shotgun, several boxes of shells, and a bevy of decoys in the trunk of “Baby,” his Ford sedan.

The never-fail wood duck caller got tucked into the pocket of his coat before he ever left the house.

Now he and the two-year-old black Labrador Retriever, Bailey, awaited the gangster’s arrival. Finally, Louie La Cava’s Lincoln turned south onto Residence Street with its headlights off, just as the first orange rays of sun pierced the horizon. A few minutes later, he nudged the car into the spot adjacent to Sweeney’s garage.

Sweeney watched Louie’s exodus, cautiously eyeing his surroundings, side-by-side sawed-off shotgun held deftly in one hand. In due course, he reached back inside the car to load his coat pockets with shells, then kicked the door closed and moseyed toward Sweeney, shotgun pointed toward the sky, a stump of a lit Cuban cigar clamped between his teeth.

Sweeney waited for Louie to put his shotgun inside the trunk before closing the top-hinged lid.

Bailey squirmed on the ground next to the driver’s door. Sweeney opened the door, and the Lab bounded into the back seat and spun around until sitting face forward like a child on a pew at Sunday morning church.

The two got themselves situated on the cold bench seat, and soon the Ford jolted northward toward Main Street. Sweeney pointed the Ford southwesterly toward the wetland about seven miles away where he kept a blind next to the Wapsie River.

Twenty minutes later, he turned the Ford onto a furrowed cow path choked with weeds and thickets, where Baby bumped along for another half-mile before arriving at a small clearing next to the timberline, about ten yards from the river. Sweeney wrenched the car to a stop, and the two disembarked.

The Lab, too, quickly sprung from the car and looped dizzyingly at Sweeney’s heels, ready to go to work.

Sweeney’s long strides quickly took him through the brittle knee-high grass to the car’s rear, where he swung open the trunk and began to load up.

Louie scanned the area before grabbing his shotgun and armload of hand-carved basswood duck decoys and headed for the blind.

Sweeney sunk a box of ammo into each coat pocket, picked up his Browning and remaining decoys, and followed after Louie. In no time, he and the dog overtook the lead.

“Kind of wish I’d made it just a bit bigger,” Sweeney said, as he entered the blind camouflaged with plywood, tree branches and natural vegetation with openings that faced the river and a portion of the sky. “But I’ve gotten as many as four of us in here, so we should have plenty of room to reload.”

“Heater be nice, too, Sweeney,” Louie said, slapping Sweeney on his back as he propped his SXS against an inside wall.

They walked in the direction of the backwater while Bailey bounded back and forth in the weeds in front of them.

Sweeney waded out past the willows and cattails into the icy brown river in his waders, positioning the decoys several feet apart. The last step was to reach into the pocket of his overalls, pull out a small bag of shelled field corn, and toss large handfuls onto the water near the decoys.

They returned to the blind to load up. Each man inserted brass shells into his gun’s magazine, a final one in each barrel.

Finally, Sweeney pulled the duck call lanyard from his pocket and placed it around his neck, leaving the caller dangling chest-high.

“Blow a call well, my father taught me,” he said, “and you’ll bring ducks in close enough to identify individual birds and make clean kills. That’s key to a good day of duck hunting.”

Then he stuck the caller between his lips, where it would hardly move the rest of the morning. Bailey sat restlessly at his feet.

Sweeney caught sight of a flock of birds circling downwind. He cupped his fingers around the caller, and began to sound rounds of five-to-seven note

greeting calls to draw in the ducks. Remembering on still, cloudy days that feeding calls had worked best for him, he then began a kind of low rapid chatter. The flock swung ‘round headed toward the blind.

As the first soft sound of wings in the air hit his ears, he increased the speed and urgency of the calling. The last hundred yards, he sounded the call one last time.

He glanced at Louie and saw he was in position, stock resting on his shoulder, barrel pointed toward the gaggle, an eye steadied on the sighting plane, finger pressed against one of the triggers.

As the birds flew overhead, the two emptied their guns of ammo. By the time the shooting ended, Sweeney had counted four ducks dropping from the sky.

“Get ‘em, Bailey!” Sweeney commanded as he and the dog sprinted toward the river.

Bailey plunged into the water, hastily returning to Sweeney’s side, bird between her teeth, steam lifting from her thick black coat.

“Release!” Sweeney said and collected the fowl from the dog’s mouth. Then he sent Bailey out three more times.

“And that’s how it’s done!” Sweeney said, four greenheads at his feet.

“Good time, Sweeney! You know how to bring ‘em real close.”

“I couldn’t help noticing—you’re pretty handy with that piece,” Sweeney said.

“Ready to go again, Sweeney!” Louie said. Breaking open his shotgun, he reached for shells in his pocket.

Sweeney took a step forward and grabbed hold of Louie’s arm holding the shotgun.

Louie flinched in reaction to the aggression, cocked his head, and glowered into Sweeney’s eyes.

“What goin’ on, Sweeney?” he asked.

“For a lot of years you’ve come and gone in Oxbow—I know you don’t bring the business with you... But I just want you to be clear... If the Feds ever show up or call to request my help in any way, the tin star on my shirt means I’m sworn to uphold the law. That’s how it’ll all come down, if it comes to that... Wouldn’t want there to be any misunderstanding between us.”

Sweeney continued to hold firmly to Louie’s arm, the two men locked eyeball-to-eyeball.

Sweeney finally released him.

Louie jerked away and took a step back.

Sweeney let several more seconds elapse before carefully moving one hand to a shirt pocket to retrieve a cigarette, then lit up, holding the smoke in his lungs for a long time before exhaling.

Louie, too, released a plume of smoke from his cigar. Suddenly he yanked the SXS toward his chest, forced a shell into the barrel, snapped the gun shut, and pointed it at Sweeney.

“Think you can put da screws to me... I oughta fillya fulla lead, here and now. No one talk to me that way!” Louie said.

“Whoa, whoa... Hold up, hardchaw,” Sweeney said, raising his hands out in front of his chest.

“Who you talk to... Whatta you say?” Louie said.

“Whattya gonna do, Louie—shoot me out here in the woods?” Sweeney said, abruptly taking a step toward Louie, grabbing the barrel of his gun with both hands and forcing it up and away from his own chest. “Guess the law wouldn’t have too far to look at who done the killin’ out here, now would they?”

“Not good mess with me!” Louie said. “Better watcha you back, Sweeney!”

“And all this time I kinda thought you liked me, and the privacy our small town afforded. It’s all been workin’ out so well for you,” Sweeney said.

Louie maintained a deadly glare at Sweeney.

“I think it’s time you leveled with me,” Sweeney said. “And don’t try to feed me any of your arkymalarkey… I’m just not in the mood for bullshit today.”

Sweeney’s hands fell from the barrel as Louie gradually relaxed his arm and his lips slid into a slow grin.

“Whattya know? Small-town marshal much, much smarter than he looks. You telling me we can’t be friends no more, Sweeney?” Louie said.

The tension finally broken, Sweeney slowly reached for a box of shells from his coat pocket and set it on the blind before opening the magazine of his Browning and proceeded to load up.

“By the way, Louie, any idea where Capone hid his twenty million? Rumors are it’s stashed someplace for the day he gets released from the Big House…gonna need a lot of start-over money, I guess. Heard it might even be hidden in Oxbow Township!”

Louie finished loading up. “We gonna do more huntin’ today—or not?” he said.

“You bet! Let’s see how many we can get in the next hour or so. I’m finding this cold dampness really intolerable this morning. My joints ache like I might be comin’ down with somethin’,” Sweeney said.

A few minutes later Sweeney pointed out thirty Canadian geese flying in formation about an eighth of a mile away.

Balancing the Chesterfield on the blind, he raised the caller to his lips, and began once more to call with fingers and breath to the wild winged creatures in the distance. !

You can learn more about Betty Brandt Passick at her web address:


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