The morning was
cold, and as Aubrey walked from his house he pulled his gray coat up about his
neck, lit a cigarette and put his thermos and .308 rifle on the front seat of
his pickup truck. A thick fog hung low over Silk Stocking Road, so Aubrey put
his brown 1968 Ford truck into low gear and drove cautiously toward town. From
somewhere down the rail line to Meridian a diesel train horn sounded, filling
the chilly November morning with its booming noise. The sound pleased Aubrey.
It reminded him of his youth and the long winter days spent in the pine woods.
No matter how far back into the Mississippi hills a man went, he could still
hear the trains moving across the land, especially on clear winter nights, a
cold moon rising.
Aubrey stopped in
at the café across from Callahan's Tire Service for a cup of coffee, hot
biscuits and grits. The coffee was steaming and thick and felt good, like an
extra layer of clothing. Aubrey ate and drank slowly, paying little attention
to Pat MacLaurin, who was seated at the counter talking to two hunters from
Meridian. MacLaurin was telling them about the big 12-point buck he had taken
in the open soybean field near the old Hamner place outside Lauderdale back in
1978. His deer grew in size and took on more points each time he told the
Aubrey had been
there on the late fall morning when MacLaurin's deer and two does moved from
the wood's edge into the field to feed. He and MacLaurin had sat most of the
night across the field in a thicket of Virginia creeper and scrub oak, wrapped
in green wool blankets, hugging the cold, damp earth, waiting for that first
rustle of leaf and brush, the sound of moving deer.
Two yearlings had
stepped into the bright December moonlight, eating their fill of the season's
last greenery and drinking from old tractor ruts. They were small and young,
full of next year's promise—or that of the year after—and the two men stretched
out in the thicket hunted them only with their eyes. Seeing them eased the
hunters' fatigue and hunger.
At daybreak the
big buck approached with his does. The buck was the soft brown color of a
hawk's breast. He sniffed every scent on the wind, every scent on the earth. He
took note of the earlier presence of the younger deer and snorted loudly. As
the first of the morning's sunlight filtered through the pines behind them, the
deer walked carefully into the brown stubble of the bean field. The does fed
hungrily as the buck watched every detail of their movement.
The buck turned
quickly at the sound of water—actually, drops of dew rolling from the leaves of
the oaks and splashing onto the thick carpet of leaves and pine needles. Field
mice rushed about in the bean field, and the buck thrust his head higher to see
them, moving closer to the feeding does. The sun rose behind him, and he
presented a massive silhouette, head erect, every muscle taut.
MacLaurin took his
Browning rifle from beneath his wool blanket, quietly worked the dark, blue
barrel through the vines and limbs in front of him and slipped off the safety.
There was a long moment of silence, as if the whole Mississippi countryside
was, like MacLaurin, holding its breath. No grass moved in the wind; no birds
sang. The shot hardly disturbed the new morning. Its sound was quickly soaked
up by the wide expanse of open field and the sudden stretch of thick woods.
MacLaurin's reputation as a good man with a rifle had been well earned. At the
instant MacLaurin squeezed the Browning's trigger, the buck turned his head
slightly toward the hunters. That movement stopped as he fell in the bean
field, his head facing the woods' edge, a trickle of blood at the corner of his
mouth. Frightened and confused, the does ran first directly across the field
toward the old Hamner house, stopped abruptly, jerked sideways and then
hurriedly worked their way back to where the buck lay. One of the does stopped,
sniffed about the buck's body and quickly followed her companion into the
safety of the woods.
This was a fine
deer—weighing more than 200 pounds with an eight-point rack. He was handsome,
powerful, an animal to envy and respect. In the four years since, though,
MacLaurin had turned the buck into one of the most famous deer of Lauderdale
County, a 300-pound rogue with a massive 12-point rack. Whenever MacLaurin
spoke of the deer, told youngsters and hunters about him, Aubrey said nothing
and smiled as broadly as MacLaurin, because Aubrey also liked seeing the gleam
in the young men's eyes and hearing in their voices the old hunger he still
felt for the deep, winter woods and the delight and mystery of deer feeding
along dark streams where few men went anymore.
his coffee, put a quarter on the shiny tabletop and before MacLaurin finished
telling his story, left. He, after all, knew how the story ended. MacLaurin
would tell the men how he sat with the buck's body for a long time, till the
December sun had risen fully, then carried the deer to the bank of Possum Creek
and cut his muscular throat, letting the buck's rich, dark blood soak the earth
it had loved best. MacLaurin, Aubrey had to admit, had a way with a story.
Outside the café a
cold rain had begun to fall. Aubrey drove carefully to his used-furniture
store, which sat on the small ridge where the town officially ended and the
woods began. He unlocked and opened the large double tin doors, flipped on the
lights, set his rifle behind his wooden desk, admired for a moment his
reframing of the old barn with new 20-foot joints of oak beam and quickly went
to work. He loved the rich smell inside the store, that heady mix of old maple
and ash, oak and cherry, mahogany and pine. Today there were Mrs. Quinton's old
armoire to repair, 12 cane chairs from Mount Harmon to strip, stain and
varnish, and an old bucksaw to sharpen. Aubrey lit a fire in the black wood
stove at the store's center, and as the seasoned white oak caught the flame, he
felt warm and good. The day went well; and quickly he sold a washstand to a
couple from New Jersey for $50. At dinnertime he warmed up a plate of squirrel
steak and gravy, field peas and biscuits and washed that down with a water
glass of Brady Harper's liquor. Aubrey had gotten the liquor from Harper's
house in town, picking it up, as always, at dawn. Aubrey bought a one-gallon
plastic milk container of the liquor every month for $15. He cut the whiskey
with water and drank it slowly. It warmed him evenly, like a good fire.