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We started down toward the lake, moving quietly through the big trees, following one of the watercourses. Already we could hear the soft feeding call of mallards. It sounded like a good flock. The old man indicated a fir tree 20 yards ahead, one that was big enough to conceal us both. We approached the tree with the dogs between us. Close against the rough bark we stood and waited. Some of the mallard hens had quacked loudly just as we reached the tree. They had heard us, or perhaps just sensed our presence. We would give them a minute or two to settle down. We were no more than 20 feet from the water. Steller's jays were scolding somewhere far above us. It could have been the jays that warned the mallards.
We knelt. The old man took my gun, then lay both guns behind us. The jays had quieted now. We peered around either side of the tree. Better than a hundred mallards were using the pond, as well as an even dozen Canada geese. The mallards were calm again, many of them tipping to feed, the green heads and chestnut breasts of the drakes bright now with new fall plumage. Most of the mallards were toward our side, within 20 yards of us. Near the opposite bank, out from the narrow muddy border between the water and the trees, were the honkers. They appeared to be six pairs. All were large birds, the males close to 10 pounds. Male and female geese look alike, long black necks and black heads with broad white cheek patches, except that the males are usually larger. They were feeding contentedly, with no idea any man was near.
There's an excitement, an exhilaration, something even beyond that, a rejuvenation, when you see wild creatures in wild places without your presence being known. We knelt and watched for a long time, and when we finally left we were very careful not to disturb the birds.
About 15 minutes later we heard the barrage. There were eight or 10 quick sporadic shots, a brief pause broken by the echoes of the explosions coming from the distant hills, then 10 more shots, the second series more evenly spaced.
The old man swore with utter violence. "The pond," he said. "Those kids nailed them on the pond." A third, more widely spaced series of shots began. "They're working on the cripples."
What followed was maddening, depressing, and it made me recall Dylan Thomas' lines: "Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Ordinarily I mistrust people who claim to think of literature at such moments, but it happened to me then.
We hurried back to the pond, but the young men were gone. Without a dog, and apparently not wanting to get their feet wet, they had left three mallards and two geese dead on the water. It was impossible to tell how many birds they had managed to retrieve.
We hiked back out again with the three grouse, the three ducks, the two big geese. The old man was swearing all the way. We saw no further sign of the young men.
It was a good day gone awful at its ending. When we reached my car the old man insisted I take the birds, all of them. "Use them," he said. "Never waste birds." He walked away in the shade of second growth timber down the Forest Service road, his dog at heel. He never looked back, and I have no idea how far he had to go.
I never saw him again, though I asked around and learned about him. That same winter I heard he was dead. I am sure that he did not go gentle into that good night. Whenever I hunt I think of him now, especially when I pass up an easy shot, as I am very apt to do these days.