Chapter VII. Dinner
 

We washed up and came down stairs. All at once it proved to be drowsy time. The dark had fallen and the lamps were lit. A new fire crackled in the fireplace, anticipating the chill that was already descending. Carrie played the piano in the other room. The General snorted over something in his city paper. Mrs. Kitty had disappeared on household business. Pete and Pup, having been mistaken one for the other by some innocent bystander, gloomed and glowered under chairs.

Both the Captain and myself made some sort of a pretence of reading the papers. It was only a pretence. The grateful warmth, the soothing crackling of the fire, the distant music--and, possibly, our state of starvation--lulled us to a half doze. From this we were aroused by an announcement of dinner.

We had soup and various affairs of that sort; and there was brought on a huge and baronial roast, from which the Captain promptly proceeded to slice generous allowances. With it came vegetables. They were all cooked in cream; not milk, but rich top cream thick enough to cut with a knife. I began to see why all the house servants were plump. Also there were jellies, and little fat hot rolls, and strange pickled products of the soil. I was good and hungry; and I ate thereof.

The plates were removed. I settled back with a sigh of repletion----

The door opened to admit the waitress bearing a huge platter on which reposed, side by side, five ducks. That meant a whole one apiece! To my feeble protest the family turned indignantly.

"Of course you must eat your duck!" Mrs. Kitty settled the whole question at last.

So I ate my duck. It was a very good duck; as indeed it should have been, for it was fattened on Egyptian corn, hung the exact number of days, and cooked by Charley. It had a little spout of celery down which I could pour the abundant juice from its inside; and it was flanked right and left respectively by a piece of lemon liberally sprinkled with red pepper and sundry crisp slabs of fried hominy. Every night of the shooting season each member of the household had "his duck." Later I was shown the screened room wherein hung the game, each dated by a little tag.

After I had made way with most of my duck, and other things, and had had my coffee, and had lighted a cigar, I was entirely willing to sink back to disgraceful ease. But the Captain suddenly developed an inexcusable and fiendish energy.

"No, you don't," said he. "You come with me and Redmond and get out the decoys."

"What for?" I temporized, feebly.

"To keep the moths out of them, of course," replied the Captain with fine sarcasm. "Do you mean to tell me that you can sit still and do nothing after seeing all those ducks this afternoon? You're a fine sportsman! Brace up!"

"Let me finish this excellent cigar," I pleaded. "You gave it to me."

To this he assented. Carrie went back to the piano. The lights were dim. Mrs. Kitty went on finishing her crochet work or whatever it was. Nobody said anything for a long time. The Captain was busy in the gun room with one of the ranch foremen.

But this could not last, and at length I was haled forth to work.

The crisp, sharp air beneath the frosty stars, after the tepid air within, awakened me like the shock of cold water. Redmond was awaiting us with a lantern. By the horse block lay the mass of something indeterminate which I presently saw to be sacks full of something knobby.

"I have six sacks of wooden decoys," said Redmond, "with weights all on them."

The Captain nodded and passed on. We made our way down past the grape arbour, opened the high door leading into chickenville, and stopped at the border of the little pond. On its surface floated a hundred or so tame ducks of all descriptions. By means of clods of earth we woke them up. They came ashore and waddled without objection to a little inclosure. We followed them and shut the gate.

One after another the Captain indicated those he wished to take with him on the morrow. Redmond caught them, inserted them in gunny sacks, two to the sack. They made no great objection to being caught. One or two youngsters flopped and flapped about, and had to be chased into a corner. In general, however, they accepted the situation philosophically, and snuggled down contentedly in their sacks.

"They are used to it," the Captain explained. "Most of these Rouen ducks are old hands at the business; they know what to expect."

He was very particular as to the colouring of the individuals he selected. A single white feather was sufficient to cause the rejection of a female; and even when the colour scheme was otherwise perfect, too light a shade proved undesired.

"I don't know just why it is," said he, "but the wild ducks are a lot more particular about the live decoys than about the wooden. A wooden decoy can be all knocked to pieces, faded and generally disreputable, but it does well enough; but a live decoy must look the part absolutely. That gives us six apiece; I think it will be enough."

Redmond took charge of our capture. We left him with the lantern, stowing away the decoys, live and inanimate, in the Invigorator. Within fifteen minutes thereafter I was sleeping the sleep of the moderately tired and the fully fed.