"You know something? Pop hasn't fired a shot all day."
"He's shot his share over the years, Sean."
Sean pumped a shell loose and blew sand from it. "Still...."
"He'll get a shot before the day's out," I predicted. "We all will. At twilight."
We worked the margins of the wasteway together, cutting through the bracken quietly. I remembered what Pop once said about the shallows on a busy day: Strays would hole up and refuse to bounce out unless you nearly stepped on their tailfeathers, because they had learned the hazards of flight. I figured if they flushed, it would be with the wind under them, so we split up and beat the edges with the breeze in our faces. Sure enough, a pair of pintails towered, and Sean took them both, a head-on and a going-over. It was good shooting, and he gave a shout when the birds fell, holding his 12-gauge aloft.
We brought the three birds in and retrieved our two drifters from where the current had pinned them to the reeds. Sean thrust his pintails up for Pop to see, and Pop answered by raising his pipe above his head.
Gusts came up again in the late afternoon. I stood with Pop to keep him ready, knowing he would sit on the bracken when he tired. "Where was it we got our Christmas goose?" he asked. "I believe it was down toward the reservoir from here. Just this side of those big bluffs."
"It was back that way. The twin ponds. Up underneath where the butte bulges."
The first of the blackbirds began to work now. Solitary pairings gliding after insects, then clouds of them, wave after wave, synchronized, like schools of fish. They dropped steeply, then banked, spun in a whirlwind, exploded toward the twilit heavens. Mallards began to move in flurries. A pair circled, once, twice—their arcs elongated coils—then came in from behind, so that we had to take them late, a drake and a hen dropping in from over the shoulder, two difficult going-away shots. I left the lead bird for Sean and told Pop to take the other, but he hesitated and Sean missed altogether. The spared mallards banked and whirled on an updraft, and we had no birds to show for it.
"Mark!" Sean called out. "They're starting to come out of the woodwork now."