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By early evening, the cold rain stopped and the skies cleared. In the hazy, soft November sunlight the Mississippi hills looked blue and ancient. Aubrey took the .308 from behind his desk, settled down in a wooden rocker and began rubbing the rifle's barrel with a rag that smelled of dark oil. Behind the store, in the thick underbrush that Aubrey had not cleared out for years, a snipe whistled in the thickening twilight. At precisely six o'clock Aubrey got up from his chair, closed the twin doors and locked them from the inside. The large red OPEN sign hanging from the store's front window latch was reversed to read CLOSED.
The moon had fully risen by seven o'clock and was a milky white behind the thin clouds racing quickly to the northeast. Aubrey flipped off the store's outdoor lights and all of the inside lights except the single bulb above his desk. Here he sat for a time in a small pool of light rubbing oil into the stock of the .308 and sipping Harper's fine whiskey. Now that the sun had gone down the liquor warmed him more than ever, and Aubrey closed his eyes and slept alone in the old furniture store at the foot of the blue Mississippi hills. Barred owls barked loudly while a gray fox sniffed at the store's back door looking for leftovers, just as he did every night. Raccoons sidled down the trunks of oaks and sycamores eager to reach town for an easy meal.
Aubrey awoke before midnight. He rubbed his eyes and pulled on his coat, for the fire in the wood stove had gone out and the store was now cold and dark. Taking up his rifle, he walked to the back of the store where he had made a makeshift ladder out of old boards, each nailed securely to an oak beam that ran up next to the old barn hayloft. Aubrey worked steadily, methodically, taking flashlight, binoculars, blanket, coffee bottle, hard-boiled eggs and the rifle up the ladder and into the loft. He settled himself quietly on the loose boards he'd laid over the crossbeams in front of the large, louvered fan opening. He stood the .308 against the wall and felt the five cartridges he had put in his shirt pocket that morning. With the blade of his pocketknife he worked apart several slats of the fan vent. The night poured into the store loft, and Aubrey looked out at the Mississippi hills bathed in November moonlight. A lone mosquito, one that winter had yet to kill, hummed in his ear. Aubrey wrapped himself in the wool blanket and waited, looking for a long time at the wide expanse of woods in front of him, the dance of moonlight on the surface of the stream. His eyes began to adjust to the night, and he was able to distinguish a raccoon's bright yellow eyes flashing from its den in the dead oak, the opalescent green of the bullfrogs by the stream bank, the silver leaves of the wild grape, the white throats of night honeysuckle. The plaintive song of a wood thrush kept him company. Aubrey knew that life along the river below him and in the woods and hills beyond was on the move, and that was as it should be.
They came first as sounds: a rustle of dead leaves on the forest floor, a sudden splash of river water, a dull whistle on the night wind. Aubrey drew closer to the hole he'd made in the fan vent. The deer had come. He knew it. The sounds became shadows on the river, running downstream with the swift water. Aubrey held his breath as the river shadows came to a halt at the woods' edge, not far from where his father had once kept a turnip patch. Many years later the turnips still came up, went to seed, came up again—food for the raccoons and rabbits, squirrels and deer, even for the gray fox when times were hard.
For years hunters had listened to Aubrey tell his stories of where the deer came at night, but he'd never told them exactly where, not even MacLaurin. The secret was his. This was his place, as good a place as any on earth for a man to be on a cold Thanksgiving morning. As he watched, the deer cautiously left the protection of the woods and moved into the clearing now ripe with turnips. At the sight of the deer, Aubrey's throat went dry and his heart raced like a child's, just as it always had ever since he'd first seen wild deer coming down Mount Harmon. What was it now, 60 years ago? Sixty-five? The feelings were the same, the best Aubrey had ever gotten from life.
The several small deer and does ate hungrily as Aubrey watched them with the obsessive attention of an artist painting a landscape, taking in every detail. The years had not diminished his awe of the grace and beauty of deer, their certainty of purpose, their speed and courage. Once as a boy he had seen a white-tailed deer at full gallop. He remembered thinking that the deer was the wind itself. He often thought afterward that the deer racing through Burton's meadow that day was the closest he'd come to seeing perfection, fundamental and unadorned.
It was nearly dawn before the big buck came to the turnip patch. A pink haze, almost a fog, had begun to work its way across the fading night sky. Aubrey knew the buck at first sight. They had met at the turnip patch three years ago and again last year. This was the deer that filled Aubrey's dreams. The buck, heavy with winter fat and crowned with a gnarled growth of antlers the likes of which Aubrey had never seen before, held back, a flash among the trees growing along the riverbank. Aubrey found him with the binoculars and gasped at his size, power, dignity. The buck's eyes were as black as a crow's wing and seemed to take in everything. Breath rolled in clouds from his nostrils. Suddenly he moved toward the delicious turnips. Aubrey reached for his .308 and slipped the barrel through the slit in the fan vent. He thought about how good the stock felt against his cheek. He took his time, putting his sight where he wanted it, holding it and then squeezing the rifle's well-worn trigger. Click.
The buck lifted his great head toward the store loft, then turned and dashed back into the woods. Aubrey watched as the buck splashed across the river. He smiled.
"There, that's deer 187," he said to himself.
He put the rifle across his lap, peeled and ate a hard-boiled egg, poured a cup of coffee and watched the morning break clear and cold. It was Thanksgiving Day, and Aubrey gave thanks indeed that he had this place where the wild deer came to feed, a place where he could watch and take part in their wildness and mystery.