The Virginian and the city boy pulled the bow of their leaky john boat up onto shore beneath a huge sycamore. The stern swung around in the current and settled against the rocks. They watched the water sweep by through a bend in the North Fork of the Shenandoah.
"We'll hike up here to a pond I know," the Virginian said. "I saw some wood ducks up there earlier this week and last year there were some teal in there about this time. But I can't guarantee anything. It'll probably be empty."
The men were poorly dressed for a hike through the dense woods. They wore chest-high waders and camouflage shirts, apparel selected for its usefulness in tracking down squirrels on a float trip along the ancient streambed
But one thing and another conspired to make it an unlucky day for squirrel hunting, and with Virginia's 3 1/2 day early duck season drawing to a close they thought a change in game might bring a change in luck.
The city boy felt strange, galumphing through the forest with a brand new shotgun nestled in his elbow. He'd never even seen a wood duck, at least not to say, "That is a wood duck." And now he was pursuing wood ducks, intent on killing them in a strange place with a strange weapon.
He followed the Virginian throuhg the woods, pressing on impassively as his brain wrestled with impossible question.
A couple hundred yards up the hillside the Virginian hunched over into a crouch. The city boy followed suit. The Virginian waved him foward. "Keep low," he whispered. "If they're in there all they need to see is your silhouette on the ridge and they'll take off.
They waddled up another 20 yards, the Virginian off to the left and a little bit ahead. Suddenly he froze in mid-step.
Both men held perfectly still for half a minute, then slowly the Virginian brought his head around to the right. "They're in there. Wood ducks," he hissed. With his arms he drew a big circle index fingers meeting at the top. It was to be a sweep, the city boy taking off to the right, the Virginian to the left, the two meeting at the head of the pond.
Now he was alone, the transplanted urbanite, stalking wild game in an unfamiliar forest. He scratched through fallen leaves and tangled brush, his heart pounding slightly with an excitement he couldn't quite explain to himself.
In 50 yards he came to a new-mown hayfield. He moved back from the pond's edge and walked upright, listening for sounds he could only guess at. He heard them, up ahead, stampling and yippiings from the top of the pond.
From around a stand of saplings came a sudden blur of brown, then another. Then came two dogs, barking and chasing. He watched in astonishment as two healthy whitetail does bounded across the open field and into the hedgerows off to the right, with the farm dogs hard on their trail.
Almost before his mind had gathered itself to frame the simple thought "deer," the city boy heard another sound from the head of the pond. It was a sharp "whoosh" of air, and from a corner of his eye he sensed movement at the treetops.
He flipped his head to the left and caught the fastest glimpse of four immaculate ducks whirring off into the cloudy sky. Lacking in hunting instinct, he never even raised his gun, though for a spilt second he had a fair shot.
He simply stood in awe, gaping at the miracle of wild ducks in perfect formation, racing away from danger.
The hunters regrouped back at the boat. After a full morning of squirrel hunting they'd seen only one, which they had brought down. The busytails apparently were put off by the ominous skies and cold northeast winds; they were holing up for the day.
The Virginian suggested a change in tactics - instead of simply floating down stream, scanning the treetops for signs of movement, one man would walk the banks and other would man the boat.
It worked. By the time they reached the take-out point at the Virginian's cabin three miles downstream they had spotted four squirrels and bagged two. That made their take for the day three squirrels, two youngsters and one grisly old male.
It was far from remarkable success, but good under the conditions.
The city dweller hunkered down by the stream and watched the Virginian skin and gut one of the young females. Then he took the buck knife himself andcleaned the remaining two.