Sean said, "You don't need a trail out here, though. Just make a beeline for the wasteway."
"Trouble with that is a bee don't have to walk. He doesn't get sand in his boots."
A quarter of a mile in, Pop's load went. It sprang away from his back without warning and flopped onto the bunchgrass. We waited while he redid his knots just so, Sean impatiently gouging the sand with his bootheel and weighing the shells in his pockets with his hand. I was overdressed and heating up quickly, so I unbuttoned my jacket and took off my cap before we got going again. The three of us hiked through chickweed and Johnsongrass. The sky had already gone from black to purple when Pop pointed out the morning's first birds—a flight of mallards wheeling toward the northwest, 11 or 12 in silhouette. "They're coming in from the Potholes," he told us, following their steep dip and swerve. "Those birds are definitely looking for a place to set."
"Let's get up there," Sean said. "Come on."
He moved on ahead. Pop and I sat against the base of a sand bluff for a while.
"How's the knee? Bothering you?"
Pop rubbed the outside tendon once or twice. "Not too bad. Not yet."
We followed a ridge, conjuring everywhere the bustle of pheasants in the sage. We climbed over a black dune, worked down to a section marker, then crossed a land bridge over a cattail marsh. For years we had gotten creditable jump shooting at this spot just by splitting up and combing the shallow margins. Pop had put in plenty of good days here; I had watched him get a triple more than once. Every time I stood in this spot I recalled one especially, from 20 years ago. A flight of mallards got up in the south pond, scattering, and Pop took a left and then a right and, incredibly, a going-away. I wondered if he remembered it. Or if all the ducks, and even the upland hunting he had done, were now faded and melded together in his brain.
It was light enough to move without flashlights. Strands of honkers, flying in broken V's, moved past, a thousand feet overhead. It didn't matter how many times you witnessed them in flight—their speed, their unity of purpose, the faint but audible sound from dozens of throats, all combined to leave you with a pounding in the ribcage. Pop watched them, too, from under his packload. I could hear his heavy breathing. We traversed the last black dune side by side, slowly, and stood gazing out across the wasteway.
"There it is," Pop said. "Damn."