One of the best parts of spending nights on the farm was the feather bed and goose down comforter. The old farmhouse was heated by open fire places and a couple of coal stoves, and my grandfather would get up and get them lit well before sunrise. By the time we crawled out of bed, the room was cozy warm.
The smell of coal smoke and the aroma of frying bacon and baking biscuits filled the old two story house, and we could hear voices from downstairs. There were four of us crammed into the big bed, and it looked like someone had kicked an ant hill as we scurried to get dressed and go down to breakfast.
The kitchen was brightly lit by kerosene lamps and a roaring fire in the huge brick fireplace, and my grandmother and all four of her daughters were cooking fried eggs and setting the tables in the kitchen and the dining room. I took a lantern and headed out the backdoor. There had been a heavy freeze overnight, and bright moonlight reflected off the frost covered barns and outbuildings.
I hurried to the outhouse and quickly did my business, and returned to the warmth of the kitchen. All of my cousins and I were expected to be dressed and ready to go as soon as breakfast was done, so I went back upstairs and pulled on my canvas hunting pants, a wool shirt, and thick wool socks.
Another nice thing about the farm is that we were allowed to drink coffee. I poured a large mug half full of dark, rich coffee and chicory, filled the balance with Carnation evaporated milk and three teaspoons of brown sugar, and sat down at the table. There were fried and scrambled eggs, hot biscuits, ham, bacon and freshly made sausage, along with grits and redeye gravy. There was country butter and homemade preserves and cane syrup.
There were seven men and eleven boys crowded around the two tables, and the ladies kept bringing trays and platters from the kitchen. By the time we all finished breakfast, there was just the slightest pink glow on the eastern horizon, and we knew it was time to hit the woods. Big Jake, my grandfather’s main man pulled to the back of the house with his mule hitched to a big cotton wagon.
After one last check to make sure we all had our guns and shells, we loaded up and Jake began dropping us off close to our stands. Everybody had his own stand. You were given one on your sixth birthday, and you kept it until death or old age took it away. I climbed down from the wagon and watched as the wagon slid out of sight.
There was just enough light reflecting off the frosty woods to find my way to my tree stand. I managed to climb to the wooden platform my grandfather had helped me build and get all my gear settled in before leaning against the tree trunk and slipping five double ought buckshot shells into my .20 ga. Remington pump. I sat quietly waiting for the natural rhythm to return to the woods.
To me, this was the best part of deer hunting. The woods at first light, the smell of smoke in the air, and the sounds of nature all around. Sure, I’d shoot a buck if one came by, but I really hoped he wouldn’t. I hated to kill such a beautiful animal, and besides, if you did kill him, you had to spend the rest of the day field dressing, skinning and dealing with him. That meant you’d miss the after Thanksgiving football game.
I’d been in my tree for about thirty minutes when I heard the first faint bay of a distant dog. The sun was up enough for the pale fall sunlight to filter through the woods in bright shafts. Jake and the other farmworkers that handled our dogs had begun their drive, and off the in the distance I could hear them calling to the pack of beagles.
One thing that you learned early in your hunting career was to be able to read the sounds of the dogs running the deer. No matter how young or inexperienced you were, you were expected to have the area around your stand covered and to shoot any buck that came by you. The whole system depended on no one letting a big deer get through. Jake would know whose stand missed the big one, and you’d have to listen to it for the rest of the weekend.
The dogs make one kind of sound when they are running through the woods looking for a buck, but an entirely different kind of baying when they have one on the run. I heard that change take place, and I knew that at any moment a buck could come picking his way in front of the dogs. A buck didn’t get to trophy size by letting the dogs make him run. He’d generally let the does mislead the dogs and he’d slip out of the net on the sly.
Soon I realized that this race was going too far to my east, and I’d probably not be involved. Sure, I might see the buck as he slipped away from the dogs, but it was doubtful this morning, and sure enough, there were three shotgun blasts that signaled the end of the race. Either there was a buck down, or a shirttail was being cut.
About ten o’clock Jake and the wagon returned to pick us up. There was a big ten point buck lying on the tailgate, and one of my cousins from Senatobia had blood all over his hunting shirt and ear splitting grin on his face. Secretly, I was glad it was him and not me as I watched them hoist the deer on to the skinning rack out behind the barn.
When I came through the kitchen door, the sage scented aroma of roasting turkey and homemade cornbread dressing reminded me that the best part of Thanksgiving was about to begin.