"Adiós, boys. You guys take it easy."
Those rides occurred frequently during winter. We fancied the cops liked us because we were free and wild and enterprising, but more often than not they stopped when we were laden with game.
I was 14 and Dan was 12. We had a good Model 12 Winchester between us. We tried to make the ducks fall on solid land; if one of us nailed a duck and it dropped into the chop of San Pablo Bay, he forfeited the gun, stripped and swam for it.
Our swims were exhilarating at first, and a source of amphibious pride, but raw exposure finally drained us as bleak days waned. Hauling clothes on and off for every bird became such a chore that we sometimes skipped dressing and simply camouflaged ourselves under lumps of wet coats and rusty-rose pickleweed. With each successful shot, the shooter then slithered, shivering, into the deep blue mud and gray water, and struck out toward the bird and mile-long rafts of resting canvasbacks that rode the cold bay swells. If new birds whipped into range, the gunner ashore might hammer down another as the gatherer swam. Retrieving our ducks this way seemed noble work; we felt hardy and useful. We had no teachers.
Once home, we carefully drew and plucked our birds and tried to guess their identities from steel engravings in an ancient dictionary. After stripping them of their fabulous plumage (and saving samples for a feather collection), I often examined the viscera and major organs, comparing heart sizes, fat content and the food in their crops. As the last of the birds' down was singed away over the stove, thereby laying a stinking pall on the household, a platoon of carcasses sat in final formation on the drainboard. Dan and I continued to pat and heft them, admiring them in death as they awaited apple, onion, celery chunks and then roasting. Visions of the storms and great distances they had flown through touched us as we debated which were the strongest and fastest by their shapes, and finally, which ones were our favorites.
As we neared the Flats one morning, other shotguns were already barking. I reckoned these were in the elaborate floating blinds anchored deep offshore. The incoming tide was planning to make itself very high very soon as we sloshed and leaned our way into a cutting north wind and neared our spot on the great serpentine channel. We were almost there.
Somehow some hunters had set up a pair of huge wine barrels on stilts and scattered their decoys all over our channel. Quacking and calling to the ducks aloft, they stood up in their barrels and shot our ducks. The strangers used a small over-and-under and a heavy humpback Browning Auto that spat out used shells. Their shooting was incredible; sometimes they seemed to have three birds tumbling in the air at once. They matter-of-factly sluiced their cripples and then lowered themselves back into their wind barrels to wait for more.
We crawled closer and watched the spectacle unfold across the channel from inside a large tide-perched plywood packing case...and waited, too.
During a lull, a most astonishing thing occurred: One of the hunters yelled something and a thin red Irish setter traipsed out from under the barrels and casually began collecting ducks. The dog dragged each bird to the blinds and went to fetch another; first, those on land, then reluctantly, the ones in the water!