The chill crept inward, into the very bones of his legs, down to the fingertips of his left hand and up to the shoulder. He found himself shifting his weight from one foot to the other, then gradually he began stepping in place. His subdued calisthenics sending waves and ripple out across the opening, making the old wooden block bob and turn.
“Well the motion sure won’t hurt.” He thought. Fifteen minutes past without sight or sound of a ducks. A few gunshots from out on the river, far down stream, boomed hollow and distant. With each small volley his attention sharpened, hoping to coax in the escapees to this wooded safe haven. Nothing came.
With a half hour to go his body began to shiver. The cold had sunk deep into his bones and his teeth began to chatter. The need to move, to get the blood flowing called strong. Maybe he should just call it a day, or slip easily through the timber back towards the trail that led back to the boat. He could try to jump shoot the last of his limit. Sure, that would work; he could get warm and finish out the limit at the same time.
He was turning to gather his gear when he heard the whistle of wings behind him. Sneaking a look over his shoulder he saw a trio of mallards drifting lazily across the tree tops. He turned back to his station, drew out his call and began coaxing the birds back toward the hole.
On the first pass he could make them out, two drakes and a hen. The birds banked and he lost them for a moment as they swung behind his position. He called softly, waiting for them to emerge again, and he waited. Just as he thought the birds had drifted off they appeared again. Two more ducks swooped in out of nowhere and joined them. His calling became more aggressive. He feared the two interlopers would ruin it. Too many times he had seen it happen. You are working birds when and have the ready to commit, only to have a stray single fall in with the flock, and pull them off towards safer quarters.
But the new arrivals must not have had the rank to change the course of the hen and her suitors. The five birds now flew as one circling the Y Tree slowly, unhurried. Two more passes and they began to set their wings, dropped and then broke off at the last moment for another trip around the hole.
Coming back into view again they now numbered a dozen at least. “Where in heaven did they come from?” he thought, now dropping back to a more gentle calling. The birds were working well, all he had to do was keep them interested and they would set down any time now.
Then it was chaos again. From every compass point birds were dropping out of the stratosphere, calling hard, joining in with the whirling multitude. Four here ten there, birds joining in from low and high until the mass that made its rotation around the Y Tree must have number a solid hundred and a half.
The flock swung from the south and lined up to make another pass, directly over the hole. He turned his face toward the water but couldn’t resist peeking up from the bill of his hat at the throng of mallards. On slow steady wing beats the lead birds crossed the edge of the opening. Then without warning they simply fell from the sky. No locked wings, no glamorous glide; the birds just dropped their butts, stuck out their feet and fell towards the water rocking side to side on outstretched wings.
He let the first wave light, then the second. More birds crossed the threshold and cart wheeled down towards the water. When the last of the mallards where beginning their fall and a good quarter of the flock was backpedaling over the throng of splashing swimming birds he pick out two drakes about from the middle of the descending bunch and threw the gun to his shoulder.
He touched off the first barrel and the drake crumpled. As he swung the barrel to catch up with his second target he saw another bird crash down on the far side of the opening, his stomach turned over. A hen, he knew by the brown underbelly turned up in the black water. Lowering the gun he watched the rest of the birds throw themselves into the air and scatter out through the trees.
“Well, I guess that’s how it ends?” he thought. “Sorry Papaw, I never saw her.” He opened the breach of the gun, drew out the smoking hull first and placed it with the other two then put the live round back in the box.
In a mix of satisfaction and slight disappointment he placed the gun on the shelf and waded over to gather his make shift game strap. Only then did he notice the pound of adrenaline coursing through his body. He realized he wasn’t cold any more. But in the pit of his gut their road certain sadness. The hunt was over, sure, that was part of it, but dang it all, A HEN! He tried to brush off his disappointment as he waded out into the decoys to pick up the birds. This drake too was a prime, fat, northern mallard. He slipped it onto the cord with the other and waded towards the last bird. She had fallen in a brushy top belly up and as he eased closer to her he noticed something wasn’t quite right. It was the darkest hen he had ever seen in his life.
A lump rose in his throat. “No, it couldn’t be.” His pace quickened and he tried to hold back the hope that forced itself into his heart. Not until the bird was in hand was he able to believe it. This was no hen mallard. This was a prize bird, a black mallard drake, fat as a house cat and dark as pitch.
He cradled the bird gently and marveled at its beauty, and his luck. For long moments he stood there tears rolling down his cheeks and falling onto the creosote colored feathers of the bird. He lifted his face toward the northern sky and whispered to his creator and to the birds of the autumn wind. “Thank you.”
On the day before the opener the following year he pulled into the camp early and unloaded a large crate. Alone he heaved and hauled it into the front door of the camp and began prying the boards away from the package within.
A glass fronted, rough-hewn, cypress box, some four feet tall two feet wide stood before him. Within the case a worn side-by-side leaned against the bark of a young oak cut to fit within the shrine. From one branch hung a simple leather lanyard with a small black call at its end, from another three fat greenheads on a frayed piece of rope. At the bottom of the box resting on a carpet of oak leaves gathered from around the Y Tree on a dry march day, were an old wooden decoy, three spent cardboard hulls and the finest black mallard you he had ever seen, looking for all the world like it had just been shot, and dropped gently to the ground beside the resting gun. Along the top edge of the box a narrow brass plaque read “Taken at the Y Tree, like Papaw would have done it.”