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Blue-Bird Weather Part 4

"There are geese on the shoal, yonder. They've come out from Currituck.

Oh, I'm afraid it's to be blue-bird weather, Mr. Marche."

"I'm afraid it is," he assented, smiling. "What do you do in that case, Miss Herold?"

"Go to sleep in the blind," she admitted, with a faint smile, the first delicate approach to anything resembling the careless confidence of camaraderie that had yet come from her.

"See the ducks!" she said, as bunch after bunch parted from the water, distantly, yet all around them, and, gathering like clouds of dusky bees, whirled away through the sky until they seemed like bands of smoke high drifting. Presently she turned and looked back, signaling adieu to the shore, where her brother lifted his arm in response, then turned away inland.

"That's a nice boy," said Marche briefly, and glanced up to see in his sister's face the swift and exquisite transformation that requires no words as answer.

"You seem to like him," said he, laughing.

Molly Herold's gray eyes softened; pride, that had made the love in them brilliant, faded until they grew almost sombre. Silent, her aloof gaze remained fixed on the horizon; her lips rested on each other in sensitive curves. There was no sound save the curling of foam under the bows.

Marche looked elsewhere; then looked at her again. She sat motionless, gray eyes remote, one little, wind-roughened hand on the tiller. The steady breeze filled the sail; the dory stood straight away toward the blinding glory of the sunrise.

Through the unreal golden light, raft after raft of wild ducks rose and whirled into the east; blue herons flopped across the water; a silver-headed eagle, low over the waves, winged his way heavily toward some goal, doggedly intent upon his own business.

Outside Starfish Shoal the girl eased the sheet as the wind freshened.

Far away on Golden Bar thousands of wild geese, which had been tipping their sterns skyward in plunging quest of nourishment, resumed a more stately and normal posture, as though at a spoken command; and the long ranks, swimming, and led by age and wisdom, slowly moved away into the glittering east.

At last, off the starboard bow, the low, reedy levels of Foam Island came into view, and in a few minutes more the dory lay in the shallows, oars, mast, and rag stowed; and the two young people splashed busily about in their hip boots, carrying guns, ammunition, and food into the blind.

Then Molly Herold, standing on the mud bank, flung, one by one, a squadron of wooden, painted, canvasback decoys into the water, where they righted themselves, and presently rode the waves, bobbing and steering with startling fidelity to the real things.

Then it came the turn of the real things. Marche and Molly, a struggling bird tucked under each arm, waded out along the lanes of stools, feeling about under the icy water until their fingers encountered the wire-cored cords. Then, to the leg rings of each madly flapping duck and swan and goose they snapped on the leads, and the tethered birds, released, beat the water into foam and flapped and splashed and tugged, until, finally reconciled, they began to souse themselves with great content, and either mounted their stools or swam calmly about as far as their tethers permitted.

Marche, struggling knee-deep in the water, his arms full of wildly flapping gander, hailed Molly for instructions.

"That's a mated bird!" she called out to him. "Peg him outside by himself!"

So Marche pegged out the furious old gander, whose name was Uncle Dudley, and in a few minutes that dignified and insulted bird, missing his spouse, began to talk about it.

Every wifely feeling outraged, his spouse replied loudly from the extreme end of the inner lane, telling her husband, and every duck, goose, and swan in the vicinity, what she thought of such an inhuman separation.

Molly laughed, and so did Marche. Duck after duck, goose after goose, joined indignantly in the conversation. The mallard drakes twisted their emerald-green heads and began that low, half gurgling, half quacking conversation in which their mottled brown and gray mates joined with louder quacks. The geese conversed freely; but the long-necked swans held their peace, occupied with the problem of picking to pieces the snaps on their anklets.

"Now," said Molly breathlessly, as the last madly protesting bird had been stooled, "let's get into the blind as soon as we can, Mr. Marche.

There may be ducks in Currituck still, and every minute counts now."

So Marche towed the dory around to the westward and drew it into a channel where it might lie concealed under the reeds.

When he came across to the blind he found Molly there, seated on the plank in the cemented pit behind the screen of reeds and rushes, laying out for him his cartridges.

There they were, in neat rows on the rail, fives, sixes, and a few of swanshot, ranged in front of him. And his 12-gauge, all ready, save for the loading, lay across the pit to his right. So he dropped his booted feet into the wooden tub where a foot-warmer lay, picked up the gun, slid a pair of sixes into it, laid it beside him, and turned toward Miss Herold.

The wool collar of her sweater was turned up about her delicately molded throat and face. The wild-rose color ran riot in her cheeks, and her eyes, sky tinted now, were wide open under the dark lashes, and the wind stirred her hair till it rippled bronze and gold under the edge of her shooting hood. She, too, was perfectly ready. A cheap, heavy, and rather rusty gun lay beside her; a heap of cheap cartridges before her.

She turned, and, catching Marche's eyes, smiled adorably, with a slight nod of comradeship. Then, the smile still faintly curving her lips, she crossed her legs in the pit, and, warming her hands in the pockets of her coat, leaned back, resting against the rail behind.

"You haven't a foot-warmer," he said.

"I'm not cold--only my fingers--a little--stooling those birds."

They spoke in low voices, under their breath.

He fished from his pocket a flat Japanese hand-warmer, lighted the paper-cased punk, snapped it shut, and passed it to her. But she demurred.

"You need it yourself."

"No, I'm all right. Please take it."

So she shyly took it, dropped it into her pocket, and rested her shapely little hand on it. "How delightful!" she said presently, shifting it to the other pocket. "Don't you really need it, Mr. Marche?"

"No. Does it warm you?"

"It is delicious. I _was_ a little chilled." She drew out one bare hand and looked at it thoughtfully. Then, with a little sigh, and quite unconscious of his gaze, she touched her lips to the wind-roughened skin, as though in atonement for her maltreatment of herself.

Even as it now was the shape and beauty of the hand held Marche fascinated; it was so small, yet so firm and strong and competent, so full of youthful character, such a delicately fashioned little hand, and so pathetic, somehow--this woman's hand, with its fineness of texture and undamaged purity under the chapped and cruelly bruised, tender skin.

She pocketed it again, looking out from under the wind-blown hair clustering from the edge of her shooting hood. "Blue-bird weather," she said, in her low and very sweet voice. "If no birds swing in by ten o'clock we might as well sleep until four."

Marche leaned forward and scanned the water and sky alternately. Nothing stirred, save their lazily preening decoys. Uncle Dudley was still conversing with his wife at intervals; the swans and the cygnets fed or worried their leash snaps; the ducks paddled, or dozed on the stools, balanced on one leg.

Far away, on Golden Bar, half a thousand wild geese floated, feeding; beyond, like snowflakes dotting the water, a few wild swans drifted.

There were ducks, too, off Starfish Island again, but nothing flying in the blue except a slow hawk or some wandering gull, or now and then an eagle--sometimes a mature bird, in all the splendor of white head and tail, sometimes a young bird, seemingly larger, and all gray from crest to shank.

Once an eagle threatened the decoys, and Uncle Dudley swore so lustily at him, and every duck and goose set up such a clamor, that Molly Herold picked up her gun for the emergency. But the magnificent eagle, beating up into the wind with bronze wings aglisten, suddenly sheered off; and, as he passed, Marche could see his bold head turn toward the blind where the sun had flashed him its telegraphic warning on the barrel of Molly's lifted gun.

"Fine!" he whispered. "Splendid! I'm glad you didn't kill him."

"I'm glad I didn't have to," she said.

"Do you think you could have?"

She turned toward him, wondering whether he might be serious; then smiled as he smiled.

At the same instant, coming apparently from nowhere, four canvasbacks suddenly appeared over the clamoring decoys, so close in that, as they came driving by the blind and rose slightly, wings bowed, Marche could almost see their beady little eyes set in the chestnut red of the turning heads. Mechanically his gun spoke twice; rap-rap, echoed Miss Herold's gun, and splash! splash! down whirled two gray-and-red ducks; then a third, uncertain, slowed down, far out beyond the decoys, and slanted sideways to the water. The fourth went on.

"Duffer that I am," said Marche good-humoredly. "That was a clean double of yours, Miss Herold!--clean-cut work."

She said, slightly knitting her straight brows: "I should have crossed two of them and killed the one you missed. I think I'd better get the boat."

"No, I'll go out after that kicker," he said, ashamed of his slovenly work.

Five minutes later he returned with his kicker and her two ducks--great, fat, heavy canvasbacks, beautiful in their red, black, and drab plumage.

"What about blue-bird weather, now?" he laughed.

Chapter end

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