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Taking Aim

ISSUE:  Winter 1992

Humphrey Smith crouched in silence behind the tall brown grass that sloped along the edges of Dickey’s swamp. It was a cold, windless morning, and the sun glared through the towering trees across the bottom, sending long shadows that stretched over the frost-covered brush like steel bars. With his eyelids drawn close together, Humphrey peered through his glasses at the maple and oak-covered hill beyond the hoarfrost that lay on the icy swamp. He listened as a faint dog-yelp broke over the hillside.

“Goddamn it,” he whispered to himself, “they’re crossing my land again.”

Humphrey was 75, still very strong, and had lived on his small farm all his life. He owned about 80 acres of land: a large field and pasture that gently sloped between the paved road and his house, providing him with the little money he needed, and a forest of hardwoods that extended behind his house and bordered the large swamp where there were plenty of deer, turkey, and rabbits. For ten years he had lived alone, occasionally seeing his neighbors when he made the trip into the town, to the Coleman’s store, where he was welcome to sit on the porch and smoke his cigarettes—the whites could sit inside—or rarely, when someone from his church, trying to get him to start going again, paid him a visit.

He also hunted alone, without dogs, and wished he could keep the hounds used by the deer clubs in the county off his property—but he couldn’t stop his heart from racing when he heard their barks echoing through the woods, knowing that the deer were running just in front.

The cries from the other side of the hill came a little closer, and his heart quickened—in the silence of the morning, he could feel the muted drumming of the arteries in his neck, and hear them deep within his ears. And with the growing pressure of his heartbeat, traces of warm air leaked out of his lungs between his steady breathing. Humphrey listened, his ears keen by a life in the woods, blocking out the occasional birdcall and tracking the hounds as they went down a hill, their cries nearly lost in the woods and then back to the top, growing more intense than before, as they came closer and closer to the swamp. He guessed there were seven, maybe eight dogs, and by the frenzied sound of their barks, he knew they were close enough to see the deer they were chasing.

He slowly pulled his naked left hand from the warmth of his wool jacket and wrapped it tightly around the stock and ice-cold trigger of his 16-gauge. Then he moved his gloved right hand cautiously up the underside of the long gun and let it rest where the wood met the steel barrel. The hounds had reached the top of the hill, and were quickly making their way down through the trees that barely filtered their cries.

With a slow lift of his arms, he raised his gun and aimed at the sound of crushed leaves moving down the slope, tracing it through the trees with his barrel until he saw three deer, a buck and two doe, hurdling over brush and dodging around trees as they raced to the swamp, with a pack of hounds chasing in tandem only 20 yards behind. Just as the buck leapt into the foot-deep water, shattering the thin ice, Humphrey’s finger tightened hard against the first trigger— sending a sharp explosion that ricocheted across the swamp—and the buck’s rear legs collapsed under its backside.

It staggered forward a few feet, trying to stand and dragging its lame hind leg—Humphrey squeezed the other trigger. The second load hit just above the heart, and the deer rocked to its side and took a final step before falling into the swamp and splashing trails of muddy water across the white frost of the ice.

The first two hounds crossed the swamp and reached the buck before Humphrey could get over to stop them. One picked up a leg with its mouth and yanked its head from side to side trying to rip a piece from the carcass. Taking his unused glove from a back pocket, he slapped the hound on its nose, sending it away with a yelp. The other dog, sniffing the body as if it weren’t quite sure what to do, was much younger, and Humphrey guessed this was its first season out: they were raised on deer meat, but it took them a season or two to make the connection between a running deer and the bones that were tossed into their pen.

He reached down and grabbed the hound by its leather collar and read the shiny brass nameplate stitched with metal wire near the buckle: Robert W. Henley, Jr., Locust Grove Hunt Club, Walker’s Tavern, Virginia. Humphrey cursed at the name etched in the brass and led the dog through the ice and water to the spot where the other deer left the swamp. He let him loose and walked back to where the buck lay in the water, and in a few moments heard the first dog pick up the deer’s trail with a short yelp, and then a few more. Soon the other dogs had joined him, and their cries echoed through the hills on the other side.

As he stood guard over the deer, a few hounds straggling behind went by, giving a sideward glance toward the fallen buck and continuing on toward the barking in the distance.

Every season since he could remember, the hunters ran their dogs through the swamp from a farm that one of them owned on the other side, and they often trespassed Humphrey’s land, looking for their dogs or deer tracks. He posted his property years before, like all the other landowners, but his signs were ignored, and the hounds kept coming back, bringing the hunters again and again with their over-sized pickups and automatic shotguns. When the fall arrived and they got together, Humphrey kept his anger stifled, doing what he always had done, and what his father had done, and what all the others from his church had done, which was to try and get along and not make trouble. He rarely raised his voice to anyone, even to his children when they were young—they had all moved far away generations ago, and two of them had since died.

When he was alone deep on his side of the swamp, he could shoot at anything he wanted to, including the deer chased by the dogs of the hunt club. But there was an unwritten law that kept everyone not a member of the club to leave their dogs and deer alone, even if they were running across someone else’s property, so when Humphrey did shoot the occasional deer that was chased through the swamp, he never told anyone.

It would have only brought trouble—the hunters were very close-knit and dealing with one meant dealing with all, and there was no predicting what they’d do when they got together and were all riled up. What they did was often cruel. Usually Humphrey was left alone and wasn’t given any trouble, but there was nothing preventing them from tearing up his field or knocking down sections of his fence if they got the urge. The younger ones were more dangerous, since they lacked the little respect for others the older whites had. The previous year had been particularly bad, when one of them killed a young calf at the edge of the woods, probably mistaking it for a deer, or perhaps even shooting it for spite. Humphrey knew which group was in the area, and talked to the sheriff about it—but nothing happened, and because the sheriff’s cousins were the ones who owned the dogs, it wasn’t at all surprising. Still, Humphrey thought that someone in the group might feel guilty and offer to pay for the cow, or at least apologize, since most of them went to church every Sunday. But no one ever did.

Not much had changed in Humphrey’s community, though there was talk on the radio about the new times that were coming and the new laws that were making everyone equal. But for all of the speeches and marches he heard about, he didn’t think they’d do much for him, although the thought of someone speaking up and taking a stand made him smile inside. And even though no one had stirred any trouble in his community, some of his white neighbors gave him hateful looks when he went into town, as if they were blaming him for the trouble they’d heard about in other towns. The closest incident, one that had everyone talking, was in Franklin, about 30 miles away, where a group from a Baptist church had formed a line outside a whites-only bathroom. One of the deacons was thrown in jail when he put his hand on the doorknob.

Humphrey had stopped going to his own church years ago after his wife died, and since so many of the younger members had left for the cities, he didn’t think anything like what happened in Franklin would happen anywhere near his place. The older folks just had too much fear.

*  *  *

Slipping his arm through the shoulder strap, Humphrey swung the old shotgun across his back and gazed at the buck from head to hoof, marvelling at the beauty. There was so much strength and quickness still there—long muscular legs bent in stride, short white and tan hair that seemed cropped by the wind, or maybe clipped by the briars and brush as it ran through the woods—as if it’d been frozen for a brief moment so that he could admire it before it jumped up and disappeared in the forest.

Out of habit, Humphrey looked around and listened to make sure he was alone. Placing his hands underneath the front legs, he lifted the buck partially out of the water and dragged it slowly through the briars and reeds to the side of the hill that rose under the woods to meet his house. He set the buck down, took a piece of hay barrel twine from his jacket and pulled the front legs over its head until they touched behind a young tree, where he tied them together. The buck lay on its back, lying face-up, its white furry chest exposed and its head propped up and tilted backwards by the antlers digging into the wet leaf-bed on the ground. He took out his Bowie knife and hatchet and dressed it, stripping the skin down and turning the fur inside out from its neck to its hind-legs. When he gutted the stomach and pulled the smooth organ out of its belly, there was enough steam to fog his glasses and warm his face.

In a few minutes he had cut away the pieces of meat he would need—shoulders, hindquarters, ribs and strips of tenderloin. Opening a burlap feed sack from his belt, he placed the pieces neatly in the blood-crusted bottom, careful to leave the tenderloin strips on top so they wouldn’t bruise. He washed his hands in the ice-cold swamp water and stood up, wiping his hands on an old tea towel, and stared for a moment at the bloody mess below him—a trail of fur and organs and blood that led to the buck’s head, its eyes dulled and milky.

Humphrey picked up the burlap sack and started the climb up the hill, thinking about the buck’s 15-point spread and the deer mounts displayed at Favor’s Store, where the hunters hung their prized trophies. Stuffing a deer’s head, sticking in glass eyes and rebuilding pieces like the nose that would otherwise rot, was a strange practice in his mind—it seemed much better to leave the deer where it fell, to be cleaned up by the buzzards and the ants. As the hunters sat in the store on stacked bags of fertilizer or on fold-up wooden chairs around the stove wearing camouflage jackets and insulated boots, Humphrey could hear the stories from his seat in the back of the store, some of them the same ones he had heard their fathers and grandfathers tell. In the winter, when the front door was closed, they let him have his coke and smoke his cigarettes indoors, but away from the stove, where the new boots were kept. From there he could talk quietly with one of his friends, if he was lucky enough to be there on a day when one was there, or listen, ignored by the hunters, to their stories.

The tales grew through the years as they were told and retold, like the 24-point albino buck, pink-eyed and white and as big as a Canadian mule deer that was knocked down by a shotgun blast before escaping into the woods, never to be seen again; or the two deer killed with one shot that landed in the back of a hunter’s pickup; or the one that was chased through the clothesline in someone’s backyard, picking up bras and panties and trailing them on its antlers like streamers as it ran away.

The hunters didn’t care what was told, or how many times it had been told, or whether there was any truth at all in what was told—it was the telling that was all-important, to be put in a trance by a good story, to laugh with all the other listeners at the right moments, to lose themselves in its magic.

And Humphrey knew better—he had seen these men hunt. They had packs of hounds to chase the deer out of the thick woods, carried in metal dogboxes on the backs of their trucks. After they were positioned on different roads and in fields around the area where the dogs were put out, they’d use their CB radios to tell each other which direction they were going. Then they’d race to where the deer were expected to come out, racing their engines and throwing mud and gravel wherever they went. Fifteen or 20 trucks would line a road, with many of the men waiting in the warmth of their cabs until someone signaled the approach of the dogs, only then cutting off their engines and, briefly, waiting with their guns aimed for the deer to cross the road. Often the deer turned around and backtracked because of all the noise, and the yelps of the hounds would grow faint. Then the trucks would skid off again to the next location, where they’d do the same thing.

Even with all the gadgetry used by the hunters, the deer often outmaneuvered them, sometimes losing the dogs in the swamp or running into an area that couldn’t be reached by truck. And this seemed to anger the hunters, since many of them acted and talked as though the deer were enemies in a war or conspiring to take over the county. Once, when Humphrey was on the far side of the swamp hunting rabbits, he watched from behind the reeds as one of the hunt club men shot a fawn over and over with an automatic rifle as it tried to swim across a beaver pond. When the deer lay still and floating in the water, the hunter and his friends shouted and threw their arms in the air as if someone had hit a homerun, their faces long with open mouths, all with the same expression, like the faces of people in the white mobs Humphrey’d seen on television, shouting and waving their fists at the marchers.

*  *  *

He reached the top of the hill and started across the path that ran beside his barley field. Ignoring the cold, tiny green shoots sprouted from the rich soil in perfectly straight rows, blending in the distance to form solid waves of green on the gentle slope of the field. It gave the appearance of a tailored lawn, the kind that rolled in front of the big farmhouses down the road, the ones that were counted when you got directions. If you stopped by the store and asked for, say, the Clarke’s house, they would tell you that it was the third house on the left down the Duck Pond Road, when in fact if you counted Humphrey’s house, clearly seen from the road, it would be the fourth. There was a code that seemed to be understood by nearly everyone that counted only certain houses—the houses owned by whites—when you were driving down the road: he grew up doing the same thing, so that even if someone had asked him directions, he would have skipped his own house as well. Until the new talk on his radio and the pictures on his television, he’d just accepted it as something that had always been, and would always be.

*  *  *

Humphrey’s house was an old clapboard bought by his father from the family he had worked for, and of his five brothers and sisters, he was the only one who stayed—the others went to Washington or Baltimore—so the house passed on to him. Covering the two-story frame were weathered planks lapping over each other in uneven grey ripples, and a rusting tin roof that looked red when the sun went down. Other small buildings built with the same boards and tin surrounded the old farmhouse: a curing barn, a hay barn, a meathouse, and in a clump of trees close to his clapboard, twin outhouses sharing a wall and a shingle-covered skylight. On one of the outhouses hung a Duke’s Pouch Tobacco sign, the blue and gold-painted enamel still clinging to its metal canvass. It showed an ivory-white hand sprinkling tobacco onto a short, yellowed cigarette paper, with the words, barely readable, “Duke’s—the cut above the rest.” On the other door was the shadowy profile of a woman in Victorian dress, an advertisement for Sloane’s Eau de Cologne.

Humphrey had never installed plumbing in his house, although he had saved a little money from his farm and probably could have afforded it. The thought of placing pipes in between his ceiling and floors seemed like a lot of trouble, compared to what he had always done, which was to bring a few buckets of water each day from the well. And the notion of indoor toilets was unsettling as well—it was best to take care of that outside where it belonged. Even now that Humphrey was older, and the water buckets were getting heavier, he still had no desire to add many of the conveniences most took for granted. The electricity fed TV, radio, light, and an old refrigerator, but that was all he needed—and he would have never had those put in if it weren’t for his wife, who had insisted on them. In the ten years after her death, Humphrey hadn’t bought a new appliance.

Walking up to the meathouse, which he used to smoke his game, he untwisted the metal wire wrapped around a nail that kept the door from swinging open and, taking the deermeat from the burlap sack, pierced it with the steel hooks that hung down from the ceiling. Realizing that he needed more kindling for the fire, he walked over to the woodshed, leaned his gun against a pile of white oak logs, and began splitting large cylindrical pieces of a hickory tree he had cut down the previous summer. Each piece that flew from his axe was placed again on the stump and halved and quartered until a neat stack of large white splinters grew on the bark-littered ground.

Humphrey gathered the stack in his arms and turned toward the house, but when he heard the sound of a truck in the distance, he stopped in mid-stride to look down his drive. Half way to the main road, a bright red pickup was splashing through the mud holes, approaching his house. He set the stack of wood down and glanced at his shotgun by the woodpile as the truck sopped and a thin white man in his early thirties with greasy tufts of blonde hair sticking out from underneath his Caterpillar hat, jumped from the high cab suspended in the air. It was Jimmie Bagby, one of the farmhands who worked for Henley, the man who owned the dogs in the swamp.

“Hey, Humphrey,” the man said as he raised his eyes.

“Morning,” Humphrey managed to say, trying to be relaxed.

“We was running a buck through the swamp this morning, but we lost him somewhere around your place. You see the dogs come out?”

Humphrey took his eyes off Jimmie and gazed across the field, as if he were looking for something to prompt him.

“No, I can’t say I did,” he said after a few seconds, his eyes still away from Jimmie’s, looking at the trees that bordered the field.

Jimmie gave him a long look before speaking.

“One of the boys said they heard some blasting down there—you sure you didn’t hear nothing?”

Humphrey kept his eyes on the trees, looking at two hollies full of red berries—the same trees he cut branches from every Christmas for Suzannah to put on top of the mantel.

“No, can’t say I did.”

There were a few seconds of silence, and he could feel Jimmie’s stare and smell his aroma of motor oil and tobacco, but Humphrey wouldn’t look back.

“Something tells me you’re lying. Humphrey—you didn’t shoot that buck yourself, did you?”

Suzannah used the holly branches to frame a picture of Jesus, and when the berries became hard and broke away from the leaves, she would put them one by one, as they appeared on the mantel or on the floor around the fireplace, into a clear glass bowl and keep them there until after New Year’s when they began to rot. But for their last Christmas together, Humphrey had put the branches on the mantel himself, and did many of the things she’d always done. On Christmas Eve, she’d gone to the butcher in town to buy a ham and was told to wait until the white ladies had ordered first, and to stand back from the meat counter so she wouldn’t contaminate their food. A few of the women snickered as she stepped away and waited—and waited as more of them came in through the door and stood in front of her. Finally when there were no other customers, she walked back up the counter, only to be told that all the hams were gone. When she got home, she took off her shoes and crawled into bed, unable to stop crying and vowing never to go back again.

Humphrey took his eyes away from the hollies and looked back with an emotionless stare at Jimmie, who flushed a little and cleared his throat.

“Well,” Jimmie said as he turned around and headed back to his truck, “it best not have been you down in there blasting, Humphrey—don’t give us no trouble.”

He watched him walk away, remembering his wife’s pain for the first time in years, and knowing that if she’d seen others standing up to the whites, she’d never have given up her place in line. Jimmie reached his truck and had taken one step to reach the cab, which was four feet off the ground.

“Uh, Jimmie—hold on there. I’ve got something I want you to pass on to Robert Henley and all them.”

Jimmie stopped and quickly turned around, giving Humphrey an intimidating look and resting his arms on his sides as if to show that he didn’t have much patience. Humphrey slid a hand in his pocket and grabbed the cloth next to his leg, holding it tight.

“You all known a long time my land’s posted, and you’re gonna have to keep off, ‘less you want me killing those deer for myself.”

Humphrey thought he saw Jimmie’s mouth open just a little, but since he didn’t say anything, he kept on—feeling bold.

“I shot that buck this morning right down below my house, and I’ll kill any more you run through here too—I’ve got a right to it just like any other man.”

Jimmie shook his head and took a few slow steps toward Humphrey, but still keeping his distance.

“Now look at who’s getting uppity—you got some nerve talking to me like that you old black son of a bitch. Just like all your goddamn brother nigras trying to take over this country. Let me tell you something—you best put those notions out your head ‘fore somebody gets hurt. We ain’t gonna put up with that shit here.”

As he gripped the cloth in his pocket even tighter, Humphrey straightened his back and glared at Jimmie.

“You heard what I said, now go on.”

Jimmie started toward Humphrey, waving a fist in the air.

“You think I’m gonna take that shit from some nigra? I don’t care how old you are, I’ll smack the—”

Humphrey took a step back and picked up his gun from the woodpile, even though he knew it wasn’t loaded, and stopped Jimmie about six feet in front of him.

“I said get off my land.”

Jimmie hesitated for a moment, and then backed slowly toward his truck.

“You shouldn’t a done that, Humphrey—you bought yourself some real trouble.”

Humprey followed behind Jimmie as he crawled into his cab.

“You just tell Henley and the rest.”

Jimmie started his engine, turned around and drove down the road by the side of the field. When he got out of Humphrey’s range, he gunned his motor and veered from the road into the field, throwing streams of black water and mud behind his tires and leaving deep ruts that followed the truck to the paved road, where Jimmie sped off.

Humphrey was surprised that Jimmie didn’t run over the mail box that stood at the road’s entrance, or knock down the posts of his front gate—he was sure some of his friends would take care of those later.

As he walked back toward the meathouse, Humphrey broke open his gun, and put the spent cartridges into a coffee can on the ledge inside the door—he had a full box of shells with him, and another two in the house. Using the rest of the wood he’d cut, he lit the tender and blew on it, resting when the flames caught the larger pieces of oak. With the venison hung on the hooks that dangled from the beams, and the fire starting to grow, he shut the door and walked back toward his house, reloading his gun with two new shells from his pocket as he looked across the field. He’d need some help building a strong fence around his field and gate for his drive, and there was enough time to call on at least a few of his old friends from church before it got too dark.


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