Chapter VIII. Ducks
 

The Captain rapped on my door. It was pitch dark, and the wind, which had arisen during the night, was sweeping through the open windows, blowing the light curtains about. Also it was very cold.

"All right," I answered, took my resolution in my hands, and stepped forth.

Ten minutes later, by the light of a single candle, we were manipulating the coffee-and-egg machine, and devouring the tall pile of bread-and-butter sandwiches that had been left for us over night. Then, stepping as softly as we could in our clumping rubber boots, our arms burdened with guns and wraps, we stole into the outer darkness.

It was almost black, but we could dimly make out the treetops whipped about by the wind. Over by the stable we caught the intermittent flashes of many lanterns where the teamsters were feeding their stock. Presently a merry and vigorous rattle--rattle--rattle arose and came nearer. The Invigorator was ready and under way.

We put on all the coats and sweaters, and climbed aboard. The Captain spoke to his horses, and we were off.

That morning I had my first experience of a phenomenon I have never ceased admiring--and wondering at. I refer to the Captain's driving in the dark.

The night was absolutely black, so that I could hardly make out the horses. In all the world were only two elements, the sky full of stars and the mass of the earth. The value of this latter, as a means of showing us where we were, was nullified by the fact that the skyline consisted, not of recognizable and serviceable landmarks, but of the distant mountains. We went a certain length of time, and bumped over a certain number of things. Then the Captain pulled his team sharp around to the left. Why he did so I could not tell you. We drove an hour over a meandering course.

"Hang tight," remarked the Captain.

I did so. The front end of the Invigorator immediately fell away from under me, so that if I had not been obeying orders by hanging tight I should most certainly have plunged forward against the horses. We seemed to slide and slither down a steep declivity, then hit water with a splash, and began to flounder forward. The water rose high enough to cover the floor of the Invigorator, causing the Captain to speculate on whether Redmond had packed in the shells properly. Then the bow rose with a mighty jerk and we scrambled out the other side.

"That's the upper ford on the Slough," observed the Captain, calmly.

Everywhere else along the Slough, as I subsequently discovered, the banks fell off perpendicular, the water was deep, and the bottom soft. The approach was down no fenced lane, but across the open, with no other landmarks even in daylight than the break of low willows and cottonwoods exactly like a hundred others. Ten minutes later the Captain drew rein.

"Here you are," said he, cautiously. "You can dump your stuff off right here. I can't get through the fence with the team; but it's only a short distance to carry."

Accordingly, in entire faith, I descended and unloaded my three sacks of wooden decoys and my three sacks of live ducks and my gun and shells.

"I'll drive on to another hole," said the Captain. "Good luck!"

"Would you mind," I suggested, meekly, "telling me in which direction this mythical fence is situated; what kind of a fence it is; and where I carry to when I get through it?"

The Captain chuckled.

"Why," he explained, "the fence is straight ahead of you; and it's barbed wire; and as for where you're headed, you'll find the pond where we saw all those ducks last night about a hundred yards or so west."

Where we saw all those ducks! My blood increased its pace through my veins. Now that I was afoot, I could begin to make out things in the starlight--the silhouettes of bushes or brush, and even three or four posts of the fence.

The Invigorator rattled into the distance. I got my stuff the other side of the wires, and, shouldering a sack, plodded away due west.

But now I made out the pond gleaming; and by this and by the dim grayness of the earth immediately about me knew that dawn was at last under way. The night had not yet begun to withdraw, but its first strength was going. Objects in the world about became, not visible, but existent. By the time I had carried my last load the rather liberal hundred yards to the shores of the pond the eastern sky had banished its stars.

My movements had, of course, alarmed the ducks. There were not many of them, as I could judge by the whistling of their departing wings and by the silvery furrows where they had left the water. It is curious how strong the daylight must become before the eye can distinguish a duck in flight. The comparative paucity of numbers, I reflected, was probably due to the fact that the ducks used this pond merely as a loafing place during the day. Therefore I should anticipate a good flight as soon as feeding time should be over; especially as one end of the pond proved to be fairly well sheltered from the high wind.

At once I set to work to build me a blind. This I constructed of tumbleweed and willow shoots, with a lucky sagebrush as a good basis. I made it thick below and thin on top, so I could crouch hidden, and rise easily to shoot. Also I made it hastily, working away with a concentration that would prove very valuable could it be brought to a useful line of work. There can nothing equal the busyness of a man hastening to perfect his arrangements before a flight of ducks is due to start. Every few moments I would look anxiously up to see how things were going with the morning. The light was indubitably increasing. That is to say, I could make out the whole width of the pond, for example, although the farther banks were still in silhouette, and the sky was almost free of stars. Also the perpendicular plane of the mountains to the west, in some subtle manner, was beginning to break. It was not yet daylight; but the dawn was here.

I reached cautiously into one of the sacks and brought forth one of the decoy ducks. Around his neck I buckled a little leather collar to a ring in which had been attached a cord and weight. Then I cautiously waded out and anchored him.

He was delighted, and proceeded immediately to take a bath, ducking his head under and out again, ruffling his wings, and wagging his absurd little tail. Apparently the whole experience was a matter of course to him; but he was willing to show pleasure that this phase of it was over. I anchored out his five companions, and then proceeded to arrange the wooden decoys artistically around the outskirts. By now it was quite genuinely early daylight. Three times the overhead whistle of wings had warned me to hurry; and twice small flocks of ducks had actually swung down within range only to discover me at the last moment and tower away again. When younger, I used, at such junctures, to rush for my gun. That is a puppy stage, for by the time you get your gun those ducks are gone; and by the time you have regained your abandoned task more ducks are in. Therefore one early learns that when he goes out from his blind to pick up ducks, or catch cripples, or arrange decoys, he would better do so, paying no attention whatever to the game that will immediately appear. So now the whistle of wings merely caused me to work the faster. At length I was able to wade ashore and sink into my blind.

Immediately, as usual, the flights ceased for the time being. I had nothing to do but sit tight and wait.

This was no unpleasant task. The mountains to the west had become lucent, and glowed pink in the dawn; those to the east looked like silhouettes of very thin slate-coloured cardboard stuck up on edge, across which a pearl wash had been laid. The flatter world of the plains all about me lay half revealed in an unearthly gray light. The wind swooped and tore away at the brush, sending its fan-shaped cat's-paws across the surface of the pond. My ducks, having finished their ablutions, now gave a leisurely attention to smoothing out their plumes ruffled by the night in the gunnysack. They ran each feather separately through their bills, preening and smoothing. All the time they conversed together in low tones of voice. Whenever one made a rather clever remark, or smoothed to glossiness a particularly rumpled feather, he wagged his short tail vigorously from side to side in satisfaction.

Suddenly the one farthest out in the pond stilled to attention and craned forward his neck.

"Mark!" quoth he, loudly, and then again: "Mark! quok--quok--quok!"

The other five looked in the same direction, and then they, too, lifted up their voices. Cautiously I turned my head. Low against the growing splendour of the sunrise, wings rigidly set, came a flock of mallards. My ducks fairly stood up on their tails the better to hurl invitations and inducements at their wild brethren. The chorus praising this particular spot was vociferous and unanimous, I wonder what the mallards thought of the other fifty or sixty in my flock, the wooden ones, that sat placidly aloof. Did they consider these remarkably exclusive; or did they perhaps look upon the live ones as the "boosters" committee for this particular piece of duck real estate? At any rate, they dropped in without the slightest hesitation, which shows the value of live decoys. The mallard is ordinarily a wily bird and circles your pond a number of times before deciding to come in to wooden decoys. At the proper moment I got to my feet, and, by good fortune, knocked down two fat green-heads.

They fell with a splash right among my ducks. Did the latter exhibit alarm over either the double concussion of the gun or this fall of defunct game from above? Not at all! they were tickled to death. Each swam vigorously around and around at the limit of his tether, ruffling his plumage and waggling his tail with the utmost vigour.

"Well, I rather think we fooled that bunch!" said they, one to another. "Did you ever see an easier lot? Came right down without a look! If the Captain had been here he'd have killed a half dozen of the chumps before they got out of range!" and so on. For your experienced decoy always seems to enjoy the game hugely, and to enter into it with much enthusiasm and intelligence. And all the while the flock of wooden decoys headed unanimously up wind, and bobbed in the wavelets; and the sun went on gilding the mountains to the west.

Next a flock of teal whirled down wind, stooped, and were gone like a flash. I got in both barrels; and missed both. The dissatisfaction of this was almost immediately mitigated by a fine smash at a flock of sprig that went by overhead at extreme long range, but from which I managed to bring down a fine drake. When the shot hit him he faltered, then, still flying, left the ranks at an acute angle, sloping ever the quicker downward, until he fell on a long slant, his wings set, his neck still outstretched. I marked the direction as well as I could, and immediately went in search of him. Fortunately he lay in the open, quite dead. Looking back, I could see another good flock fairly hovering over the decoys.

The sun came up, and grew warm. The wind died. I took off my sweater. Between flights I basked deliciously. The affair was outside of all precedent and reason. A duck shooter ought to be out in a storm, a good cold storm. He ought to break the scum ice when he puts out his decoys. He ought to sit half frozen in a wintry blast, his fingers numb, his nose blue, his body shivering. That sort of discomfort goes with duck shooting. Yet here I was sitting out in a warm, summerlike day in my shirt sleeves, waiting comfortably--and the ducks were coming in, too!

After a time I heard the mighty rattle of the Invigorator, and the Captain's voice shouting. Reluctantly I disentangled myself from my blind and went over to see what all the row was about.

"Had enough?" he demanded, cheerily.

I saw that I was supposed to say yes; so I said it. The ducks were still coming in fast. You see, I was not yet free from the traditions to which I had been brought up. Back in Michigan, when a man went for a day's shoot, he stayed with it all day. It was serious business. I was not yet accustomed to being so close to the game that the casual expedition was after all the most fun.

So I pulled up my rubber boots, and waded out, gathering in the game. To my immense surprise I found that I had thirty-seven ducks down. It had not occurred to me that I had shot half that number, which is perhaps commentary on how fast ducks had been coming in. It was then only about eight o'clock. After gathering them in, next we performed the slow and very moist task of lifting the wooden decoys and winding their anchor cords around their placid necks. Lastly we gathered in the live ducks. They came, towed at the end of their tethers, with manifest reluctance; hanging back at their strings, flapping their wings, and hissing at us indignantly. I do not think they were frightened, for once we had our hands on them, they resumed their dignified calm. Only they enjoyed the fun outside; and they did not fancy the bags inside; a choice eminently creditable to their sense.

So back we drove to the ranch. The Captain, too, had had good shooting. Redmond appeared with an immense open hamper into which he dumped the birds two by two, keeping tally in a loud voice. Redmond thoroughly enjoyed all the small details.