A lone mallard hen, skimming low, nearly set down among our decoys before Sean fired at her—neatly and with the proper composure. It was a rare display of patience on his part, I thought. At any rate, he missed. The bird veered over the cattails, skimming still, before he dropped her cleanly with a long second shot.
Sean was still reloading when a group of eight began to circle the upwind reeds, turned away as if to give it up, then coiled back again, suspicious, circling twice more and then angling in uncertainly, pulling up 30 yards away and stroking hard over our blinds. I fell back in the bracken and squeezed off at a going-over hen without giving her the proper lead time, and the eight of them soon cleared gun range.
"Call them in!" Sean screamed. "Mark!"
I gave the feeding call. With the coming darkness inevitable, it seemed to me that these would be the last birds of the day. They were green-winged teal, two dozen or more, listing to the right and approaching on a low slant; a tight flock, swift in flight but apparent from far off, so that I had time to remind Pop to get shouldered and to fire when I did. Sean put two birds down, firing too quickly in succession and missing on the second shot. I took a triple with the slow deliberation I have found myself capable of in recent years.
"Nice shooting," Pop said, with his hand on my arm. "You did it just like I would have. Pretty as a picture."
In the final light I hauled out our decoys and wrapped their anchors, and my son collected the six birds still on the water. I didn't ask my father why he hadn't shot, but Sean did, with the blind ease of a boy of 20. "I don't lead so well," Pop told him. "It's just opening day. I'm a tad ragged, I guess. I can't get onto them yet."
But we had plenty of birds, 11 for the day. I let Sean carry them strung and draped over his shoulders. Pop sloshed along behind us with his burlap bag across his back and his pipe clutched between his front teeth. "Beginning to get cold," he said.
The day reversed itself; it was dark again and, freed from our waders, guns emptied of shells, we hiked back across the sage and black dunes. Sean explained to Pop how he had come by his pintails; how with the head-on, the barrel of his gun had temporarily obscured the bird from sight; how with the going-over he had swiveled and planted to take him nearly on the going-away. We could hear the chains of geese as they reeled high overhead. The blackbirds had settled in for the night. The first stars came out, and a coyote began to cry. I stopped to listen, smelling the sage. Sean left me in his boot tracks, going off with the birds over his shoulders and his flashlight broadcasting across the sagelands.
Pop limped up behind, and we sat down. "Knee," he said. I gave him my canteen. We rested in silence. "Down in there," I said, pointing below us, "are the ponds where you got that good triple jump shooting. It was the south pond in 1967, I believe."
Pop only nodded and returned the canteen. But I could see that he remembered.