OYSTERBACK, Md. -- "Old Man Tolliver. Judge Fin Fish, Dr. Frosty Froston and Loop Gareau, attorney-at-law," said Ferrus T. Buckett, the way he does when he's thinking about how to make a good story better. "Now there's a story." As if by magic, his coffee cup was refilled, and I, Desiree Grinch, proprietor of the Blue Crab Tavern and just as nosy as anyone else around here, waited to hear the tale Ferrus was about to unwind.
It was 4 a.m. and I was cooking scrapple and egg sandwiches, a real hunter's breakfast. "Get yer deer yet?" is the cry of the season around Oysterback this time of year, and some of us intended to answer "yes" today. I could sense Junie Redmond, Parsons Dreedle, Huddie Swann and my Earl Don listening. You know you're good when even the boys want to hear your accounts.
"Frosty, Fin, Loop and Old Man Oliver Tolliver, they used all be bunky bunkies," Ferrus recalled. "He was like father to them boys."
"Frosty, Loop and Fin Fish. Sounds like three different kinds of kid's cereal," Huddie snorted, and Junie giggled.
"I didn't know there was anything funny about duck shooting," Ferrus said. Anything to do with ducks and geese is right up there with Mom, Apple Pie and the Flag around these parts.
"As I was saying," Ferrus continued narrowly. "If you're interested . . ."
"Oh, we're all ears, Ferrus," we reassured him.
He sipped his coffee. "Back in the Fifties, Froston, Gareau and Fish were ducking buddies with Old Man Tolliver, Oliver Tolliver, the millionaire. Had that big ole yacht he named Seafood, remember that boat? Fella made all his money in those fish canneries they used to have down to Bethel.
"Well, Old Man Tolliver had himself a gunnin' club down near Elliott's Island, and those boys used to go out with him. Your cousin Cephas used to look after the place and carry 'em on out, and he said they done as much drinkin', card playin' and lyin' as they done shootin' down there. Of course, knowin' Cephas, he was right in there with the rest of 'em." As Ferrus got into it, his accent grew broader and blunter until his consonants were stretched over his vowels like chewing gum on a July sidewalk.
"Cephas did like to party," I agreed. Ferrus nodded, thoughtfully stirring in his cream. When he tells a story, it's best not to push him; he has his own rhythm for these things.
An inverse relationship
"Well, Old Man Tolliver upped and died, and Mrs. Tolliver, well, I guess she was the second or third or even fourth Mrs. Tolliver, by then. The older he got, the more his wives kept gettin' younger and blonder and bigger through the chest, and this one wasn't much interested in hunting anything bigger than a diamond bracelet. Cephas inherited alla Old Man Tolliver's guns, though, and he had some nice ones, so it weren't a complete waste of time for him."
"And lost ever' damn one of 'em playin' cards," Earl Don put in with a small grin. I knew that's how he'd come across a couple of his shotguns, but I didn't say anything.
"Cephas was a fool," Ferrus said shortly. "But here's the point. Old Man Tolliver left that hunting-club property to Frosty, Fin and Loop. On condition."
"What condition?" we all naturally asked.
Ferrus' eye sparkled, and beneath his mustache, his lips quivered as he leaned in close to us. "The old man left a codicil in his will that said they could have the lodge, two pit, one off-shore and one on-shore duck blinds and 500 acres of prime marsh and old woods if they'd agree to one thing." He held up one finger to illustrate. "See, Old Man Tolliver just loved his gunnin'. He said they could have the place if they'd carry him, dead or alive, gunnin' with them when they went out. Had the lawyers put that right in the will."
"That's a tough order," Junie allowed.
"A challenge indeed," Parsons agreed.
Ferrus chuckled. "These boys was a doctor and two lawyers. You don't think a little thing like carryin' their dead old millionaire bunky buddy out to the bayshore with them was gonna stop that bunch, didja? No way! They wanted that hunting club for their very own!"
"So, what did they do?" I asked. I knew someone had to bite, and it might as well be me.
Ferrus guffawed. "Why, Dr. Frosty had Old Man Tolliver cremated, and lawyers Loop and Fin come over and ast me to make 'em a great big old swan to stuff those Old Man Tolliver ashes into!" He started to laugh until tears began to run down his cheeks. "Dead or alive, Old Man Tolliver never missed a day's gunning! They carried that snow goose on every trip out!"
"Wow," said Huddie, truly awed.
"Uh-huh!" Junie agreed. I hope no one was getting any ideas for future reference.
Ferrus lifted his coffee in silent salute. "Here's to Old Man Tolliver!" he toasted. "He was the duck hunter's duck hunter!"
Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.
Pub Date: 12/11/96