The Old Man watches as the steam rises off his coffee mug, just poured from the old rusty thermos his wife gave him so long ago.
He drinks his coffee black. No cream. No sugar. It’s just easier that way.
His pale, grey eyes scan the darkness for the faintest flicker of movement. His hands caress the checked wood grain of his father’s Remington, each scar and carving familiar to his touch.
The Kid is drifting in and out of sleep at the other end of the small boat.
The Kid drew the short straw among his brothers and cousins and Grandpa picked him up at 3:30 this morning. He’d piled into the cab of the old truck, next to the greying Labrador, barely awake but knowing it was his turn.
They’d launched the boat by moonlight, loaded with heavy cork decoys and an outboard older than both of them, kicking them along to an unnamed oxbow just upstream.
The Old Man scratches the labs ears, causing that unmistakable thump in the bottom of the boat. The dog whimpers his appreciation, anxious for the hunt to begin.
The daylight begins to win, and nature begins to stir . . . Egrets and ibis and herons and hawks . . .
The Kid awakens, wiping the sleep out of his eyes. He looks at the Old Man, grizzled, leathery, his face stoic as his eyes sweep the landscape . . . He wonders how many times the old man has done this . . . How many ducks has he shot, how many mornings has he set decoys . . . In a rare moment of awareness, the Kid finds himself wondering how many more times the Old Man will be able to do this . . .
The Old Man sees them from a hundred yards out . . . Even at his age and this distance, he catches the glint of green signaling an impending landing. He taps his duck call, cementing the mallards into his trap . . .
The Kid grips his gun . . . His mouth feels dry, the wood stock cold and strange . . . He fingers the safety, nervous he’ll forget to push it when the opportunity comes . . . He reminds himself to breathe . . .
The Old Man calls the shot, the Wingmaster coming easy to his shoulder, a motion perfected by a thousand rehearsals over dozens of years . . .
The Kid rushes his gun up, unsure of what’s happening until the first recoil pounds into his shoulder . . . Aim . . . Pull . . . Pump . . .
The echoes harmonize as the ducks splash into the creek, both brought to hand shortly by that old grey lab . . .
The Old Man holds his aloft, admiring the iridescence in the cloud-filtered sunshine . . . The Kid takes his duck and mimics the Old Man . . . He notices the hidden purples in the green, the brilliance on the speculum, the sharp lines and the subtle shading. He notices the smell of the recently fired shells, the lab happily panting, the other ducks moving up and down his field of view . . . He hears the clucks, the chirps, the swirl of a fish, the sound of a distant road . . . He begins to take in the feel of his gun in his hands, the smell of the coffee, the rattle of shells in his pocket . . .
The Kid looks at the Old Man again, now with admiration . . . Maybe this is why he does it . . . Punishing himself with middle of the night wake ups and laborious decoy spreads . . . To come to this, this sort of church out here in the middle of nowhere . . .
The Old Man sees a small pod of birds turn their way. The Kid has seen them too.
The Old Man smiles.