As he pitched the last block onto the tossing water, Jake Thomas heard a soft whine behind him in the wind-tossed darkness

As he pitched the last block onto the tossing water, Jake Thomas heard a soft whine behind him in the wind-tossed darkness

"It’s all right, old girl. I’ll be right there," he called out to his ancient lab of 13 years, a canine companion waiting impatiently on sore hips in the makeshift duck blind.

When he got to the blind, Jake — a retired veterinarian — had to admit that Susie’s hips weren’t the only old bones creaking on this Christmas Eve morn.

Sitting on his hunting stool, Jake unscrewed the lid from his battered thermos bottle, pouring out a stream of hot coffee bearing a stout taste that no trendy brew could ever hope to duplicate.

As he sipped the homemade java — strong with just a touch of milk — the pungent aroma was quickly torn away on the building wind.

"Probably won’t be much flying this morning Susie-Q," Jake mumbled. "Darned warm weather has shut the migration down. And the birds that are here, well, they’re probably heading for that young feller that beat us to the ‘Bulls-Eye Blind.’"

As Orion the Hunter faded overhead with the reluctant approach of daylight, a quiet buzz rattle through Jake’s blind bag.

"Who on earth would be calling me this early in the morning?" he wondered aloud.

He knew his wife Kathleen was still asleep, so it couldn’t be her.

For starters, she wasn’t much of an early riser.

And with their meager Christmas buying complete — a bad economy and a retirement plan sunk by the fade of Wall Street had seen to that — there was little doubt that she was not the one behind the electronic intrusion into Jake’s annual Dec. 24th duck hunt.

When Jake wrestled the phone from his blind bag, he saw that he had a text message waiting.

After fumbling at the buttons, he finally saw the message glowing in the predawn darkness.

"Dad, we’re stuck at the airport. The snow is getting worse and they say that blizzard warnings are going up. I don’t know when…or if… we’ll make it today. I’ll let you know. Love, Sam."

For a few moments, Jake fought back tears.

"Lord, this is just too much," he quietly prayed as he wiped the mist from his eyes. "I want to trust. But I just don’t understand. This year has been so very hard. What are you trying to teach me?"

From the financial woes of a retirement plan gone south to Kathleen’s building health problems to the loss of a couple of very good friends to cancer, the current year had left Jake weary at best and numb at worst.

For the last month, however, Jake had comforted himself with the thought that come Christmas Eve, it would all be better.

By mid-afternoon on the 24th, his son Sam, his daughter-in-law Sandy, and his six-month old granddaughter Annie would have made the flight from Denver and would be in the family’s North Texas homestead celebrating Christmas.

But now, a snowstorm, a text message…and a world suddenly gone sour.

"Why?" Jack queried softly, his voice breaking. "You know, sometimes, I just can’t make sense of it all. This year has been difficult and now…now…well now, Christmas may be ruined."

As he finished off the last of the coffee, Jake glanced at his watch and saw that shooting time had arrived unnoticed a couple of minutes earlier.

As he sat his cup down, he reached into his worn duck parka and pulled out three loads of No. 2 steel and loaded them into his battered shotgun as they snapped home with an oily metallic clang.

For a while, there was only the sound of the building wind, a southeastern blow that promised rain by evening.

Finally, a half-hour into the day, Jake heard the familiar whistle of wings overhead.

As he looked up under the brim of his hat, the aging hunter saw a mallard drake and a hen winging by 50 yards downwind of his decoy spread.

A quick highball from the cocobolo wood Rich-n-Tone duck call — old Butch Richenbach had built it himself — turned the pair of ducks as if on a string.

Soft feed chuckles brought them overhead for a closer look.

And a timely contented quack caused the pair to set their wings.

When the greenhead lowered his landing gear and slid into range, Jake mounted his 870 pump-gun and touched off the shot.

At the report, the greenheaded drake crumpled and fell into the middle of the spread, an easy retrieve for Susie.

As the dog waded back in with the mallard clutched firmly in her mouth, Jake was startled to see a piece of silver wrapped around the drake’s bright orange leg.

"A band? Well I’ll be, it’s been several years since I’ve gotten a banded bird," he thought.

But upon taking the bird from Susie, Jake realized that this band wasn’t like any other he had ever seen.

"What’s this?" he wondered.

And then he read something that sent a shiver down his spine: "Jack Miner Foundation. Kingsville, On., Canada."

Jake could scarcely believe his eyes — a Miner band!

As he twirled the band in his fingers, Jake saw an inscription on the band that caused him to stop and catch his breath.

That’s because what he saw was the Scripture verse that Miner bands are famous for bearing.

This one read: "I walk among you" Lev. 26-12. Year 2007."

For a long moment, Jake sat there and reflected on the events of the past few months.

On his own wearied faith and his prayers looking for answers that seemed slow in coming.

And now, on a promise born from the wind-tossed skies above by the whistle of greenhead wings on a Christmas Eve morning.

"I walk among you," the band declared, just in time for Christmas.

"Indeed," Jake mused. "You walked among us after that first Christmas.

"And you still do Lord, even in a difficult year."

And with that, Jake reached for the chilling coffee, swallowed the last sip, rubbed Susie’s graying head, and smiled bigger than he had in months.

All as the south wind continued to blow.