Chapter IV. The Early Bird
 

I was awakened rather early by Redmond, who silently entered the room, lit a kerosene stove, closed the windows, and departed. As I was now beneath two blankets and an eiderdown quilt, and my nose was cold, I was duly grateful. Mistaking the rite for a signal to arise, I did so; and shortly descended. The three fireplaces were crackling away merrily, but they had done little to mitigate the atmosphere as yet. Maids were dusting and sweeping. The table was not yet set. Inquiry telling that breakfast was more than an hour later, I took a gun from the rack, pocketed the only five shells in sight, and departed to see what I could see.

The outer world was crisp with frost. I clambered over the corral fence, made my way through a hundred acres or so of slumbering pigs, and so emerged into the open country.

In the middle distance and perhaps a mile away was a low fringe of brush; to the left an equal distance a group of willows; and almost behind me a clump of cottonwoods. I resolved to walk over to the brush, swing around to the willows, turn to the cottonwoods, and so back to the ranch. It looked like about four miles or so. Perhaps with my five shells I might get something. At any rate, I would have a good walk.

The mountains were turning from the rose pink of early morning. I could hear again the bickering cries of the snow geese and sandhill cranes away in an unknown distance, the homelier calls of barnyard fowl nearer at hand. Cattle trotted before me and to right and left, their heads high, their gait swinging with the freedom of the half-wild animals of the ranges. After a few steps they turned to stare at me, eyes and nostrils wide, before making up their minds whether or not it would be wise to put a greater distance between me and them. The close sod was green and strong. It covered the slightly rounding irrigation "checks" that followed in many a curve and double the lines of contours on the flat plain.

The fringe of brush did not amount to anything; it was merely a convenient turning mark for my little walk. Arrived there, I executed a sharp "column left----"

Seven ducks leaped into the air apparently from the bare, open, and dry ground!

Every sportsman knows the scattering effect on the wits of the absolutely unexpected appearance of game. Every sportsman knows also the instinctive reactions that long habit will bring about. Thus, figuratively, I stood with open mouth, heart beating slightly faster, and mind making to itself such imbecile remarks as: "Well, what do you think of that! Who in blazes would have expected ducks here?" and other futile remarks. In the meantime, the trained part of me had jerked the gun off my shoulder, pushed forward the safety catch, and prepared for one hasty long shot at the last and slowest of the ducks. Now the instinctive part of one can do the preparations, but the actual shooting requires a more ordered frame of mind. By this time my wits had snapped back into place. I had the satisfaction of seeing the duck's outstretched neck wilt; of hearing him hit the ground with a thud somewhere beyond.

Marking the line of his fall, I stepped confidently forward, and without any warning whatever found myself standing on the bank of an irrigation ditch. It was filled to the brim with placid water on which floated a few downy feathers. On this side was dry sod; and on the other was dry sod. Nothing indicated the presence of that straight band of silvery water until one stood fairly at its brink. To the right I could see its sides narrow to the point of a remote perspective. To the left it ran for a few hundred yards, then apparently came to an abrupt stop where it turned at an angle.

In the meantime, my duck was on the other side; I was in my citizen's clothes.

No solution offered in sight, so I made my way to the left where I could look around the bend. Nearing the bend I was seized with a bright idea. I dropped back below the line of sight, sneaked quietly to the bank, and, my eye almost level with the water, peered down the new vista. Sure enough, not a hundred and fifty yards away floated another band of ducks.

I watched them for a moment until I was sure, by various small landmarks, of their exact location. Then I dropped back far enough so that, even standing erect, I would be below the line of vision of those ducks; strolled along until opposite my landmarks; then, bolt upright, walked directly forward, the gun at ready. When within twenty yards the ducks arose. It was, of course, easy shooting. Both fell across the ditch. That did not worry me; if worst came to worst I could strip and wade.

This seemed to be an exceedingly unique and interesting way to shoot ducks. To be sure, I had only two shells left; but then, it must be almost breakfast time. I repeated the feat a half mile farther on, discovered a flood gate over which I could get to the other side, collected my five ducks, and cut across country to the ranch. The sun was just getting in its work on the frost. Long files of wagons and men could be seen disappearing in the distance. I entered proudly, only ten minutes late.