“The Homecoming” Part 1 of GON’s 5-Part Fall Fiction Series
Jamie Hardin opened one side of the double glass doors leading into Haynie’s Drug Store and stepped inside. With the aid of a single crutch, he turned to his right and walked into the brightly decorated 1950s-style soda shop located in the front right-hand corner of the pharmacy. After taking a few steps, he paused and looked up at the massive non-typical deer hanging on the high-ceilinged wall about 8 feet above the long lunch counter.
“I never thought I’d see you again,” he said out loud in a low voice.
He glanced around the soda shop and smiled, taking in the unusual decor. Everything was decorated with a red-and-white theme except for the floor that had been checker-boarded in black and white tile. The 15-foot lunch counter was made from some type of bright red composite resembling marble. A line of red bar stools with chrome trim stood in front of and complimented the counter.
Just across from the lunch counter a partitioned wall held several booths with red tables, chrome legs and red Naugahyde upholstery on the seats. Several more booths lined the front of the shop against a large picture window that looked out into the small town square. Framed pictures of classic cars and old ads lined the walls under the deer head. If you were a stranger in town and you walked into Haynie’s Drug Store off the street, you would no doubt think you had gone back to a time of Elvis Presley and poodle skirts. Nonetheless, to Jamie the singular deer head dominated the small shop and everything in it.
It was about 10:30 a.m., a little early for the local lunch crowd that usually gathered in the soda shop. Only a few customers were wandering around the store. A very attractive girl that Jamie didn’t know with long blond hair tied in a pony tail stood behind the counter preparing various menu items for the upcoming luncheon rush hour.
“Can I help you,” she asked in a cheerful and friendly voice.
“Oh, no thanks,” Jamie answered. “I’m just waiting on somebody, but I’m early.”
“Were you talking to that deer head?” she asked with an accusing smile.
“Guilty as charged,” Jamie said, returning the smile. “I always talk to deer heads. Especially when they’re as big as that bad boy.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “People come from all over to see him. He’s actually pretty famous around these parts. His name is Old Jupe. Short for Jupiter. Want me to tell you about him?”
She walked around the counter and out into the main restaurant area toward Jamie. She was wearing tight jeans and a red University of Georgia Bulldogs T-shirt. Around her waist she wore a dark blue restaurant-style apron with an order pad in one of the front pockets. Her slim figure and the way she filled out her jeans did not go unnoticed by Jamie.
“Are you from around here?” she asked.
“Not lately,” he said. “I’ve been away a while. Sure, tell me about him. I always like a good deer story.”
“Well he’s the largest deer ever killed in Dodge County. He was killed 14 years ago in 1999 out west of town on the old Hardin farm. James Hardin Sr., the man who killed him, was a local farmer and sort of a legendary hunter around these parts. He used to own the property where he was killed. The deer scores over 200 inches, and he’s a real legend in these parts now, too.”
“Is that a fact?” Jamie asked curiously. “How could a little raghead like that be a local legend?” He was playing with her now.
“Are you serious? This deer is anything but a raghead,” she said defensively. She couldn’t tell whether he was serious, ignorant or just kidding. “Do you know anything at all about big deer?”
“A little,” he answered. “I used to hunt some in another life.”
She looked at him quizzically. “Honestly, to answer your question, I don’t know why he’s so famous,” she said. “I guess because he’s so big. There’s a lot of the story I don’t know. I’ve just heard people talk about Mr. Hardin, and I’ve picked up bits and pieces about how he killed the deer while I’ve been working here. Apparently the man was a real character. And his trophy is the largest buck ever taken around here; I know that for sure. Mr. Hardin shot him with a bow. Do you bowhunt?”
“I have in the past,” Jamie answered.
“Then you must know how difficult it is to kill a buck like this with a bow,” she said. “There’s also a lot more to the Hardin story than just this buck. Just before he was killed, a terrible tragedy occurred on the farm. Mr. Hardin’s grandson was killed in a train accident. The tracks run through the property. The train accident somehow ties in to the buck but I don’t know all the details. It’s really sad though. I just can’t imagine losing someone so close to you in a tragedy like that. Mr. Hardin supposedly hunted the buck for several years before he finally got it back in 1999.”
“Sounds like an interesting story. Is there more?”
“Yes, there’s a lot more,” she said. “The night before Mr. Hardin shot him, Jupiter, the planet, was very prominent in the night sky. The story goes that Mr. Hardin had to stay in his stand for two hours after dark because the buck was feeding right under him with some other deer. Since he was hunting with a bow, he never could get a shot before darkness set in. While he was waiting for all the deer to go away so he could climb down without spooking them, Jupiter appeared in the night sky. Mr. Hardin sat there all that time looking at the bright planet above him. The next morning he went back to the same stand very early, hoping the big buck would still be in the area. And Jupiter was still out. Can you imagine going after a buck like that? He probably didn’t get much sleep. I know I wouldn’t.
“I wouldn’t either,” Jamie said. “Go on…”
“Shortly after daylight that next morning, he saw the buck from his stand, but he still couldn’t get a shot. The deer finally walked away following a couple of does through the woods. Not wanting to lose the buck of a lifetime, Mr. Hardin climbed down from his tree and followed the deer through the woods on foot. The story goes that he took off his boots and went barefoot in his socks on the icy ground so he wouldn’t make any noise. He stalked up to within 25 yards of the buck and made a perfect double-lung shot on him. After that, he named the deer Jupiter. Now everybody just calls him Old Jupe.”
“You tell a good story,” Jamie said. “How do you know so much? Do you hunt?”
“Oh yes, I love to hunt,” the girl answered. “I’ve been hunting with my boyfriend for two years. Before that I hunted with my dad a lot. I’ve killed six bucks.”
“What’s your name?” Jamie asked.
Just as she started to answer, Cecil Haynie, owner of the drug store, saw Jamie and came rushing over to greet him.
“Jamie, Jamie, Jamie!” Mr. Haynie said with an emotion-filled voice. “Oh it’s so good to see you, son! Let me look at you.” He walked up and gave Jamie a bear hug, almost knocking him off balance since he was leaning on his single crutch.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Hope I didn’t hurt anything.”
“You didn’t,” Jamie said. “It’s good to see you too, Mr. Haynie. The soda shop turned out awesome!”
“How’s the leg?” Mr. Haynie asked. “We’ve heard all about it. You must have had a rough time over there. You really had everyone around here worried when word came that you were missing. A lot of people were praying for you. Oh, I’m so glad you’re home now. How is your grandmother?”
“She’s good,” Jamie said. “She’s real good.”
“I’m glad to hear that. I bet Isabel’s thrilled to see you. You always were her shining star!” Mr. Haynie suddenly realized a third person was standing there. “Oh excuse my rudeness. I was so excited when I saw you that I think I interrupted your conversation with Shelby here. Were you two talking? Do you know each other? Shelby makes the best homemade pimento cheese this side of Macon.”
“We were just introducing ourselves,” the girl said. She stuck out her hand to Jamie and added, “Hi. My name is Shelby Green. Nice to meet you Jamie.”
“Likewise,” Jamie said, shaking her hand. Then turning to Mr. Haynie he said, “Shelby was just telling me a little bit about Old Jupiter there. Sounds like quite a story behind that buck.”
Mr. Haynie looked momentarily confused. “Well I guess you could certainly fill in any blanks,” he said. “We’ve been taking good care of him while you were gone.”
Then a big smile crossed his face and he lit up like a lightbulb.
“So you like the soda shop, huh? It was just in the talking stages when you left town, but now it’s turning into a real landmark around here.”
“It’s beautiful, Mr. Haynie. Actually it’s pretty amazing. You did a nice job. You said you were gonna do it and you did. You oughta be very proud. How have people responded? Are you getting much business?”
“Unbelievable,” Mr. Haynie said. “What with the courthouse crowd and all the shops on the square now, we have more business than we can handle at lunchtime. We’re busier than McDonalds and Burger King put together!”
Shelby nodded her head in agreement. “He’s right. People love this place. And we make better hamburgers than the competition.”
Haynie’s Drug Store had been founded by Cecil Haynie’s grandfather shortly after World War II. It originally boasted a period soda shop back in the ’50s, but after several renovations in the ’60s and ’70s the soda shop had gone by the wayside. When Cecil Haynie inherited the store several years earlier, he vowed to bring back the original old soda shop and he did—against much local speculation that such an enterprise would fail miserably.
“Speaking of lunch, are you here to eat?” Mr. Haynie asked. “If so it’s on the house. Anything you want. That’s the least we can do for our home-grown war hero! And you can’t leave here without trying one of our specialty milkshakes. Haynie’s specializes in home-made foods and dairy delights just like the sign in the window says!”
Shelby raised an eyebrow as she stared deeply into Jamie’s eyes.
“I’m not a war hero,” Mr. Haynie. “The real heroes didn’t make it back.”
“I’m sorry, son,” Mr. Haynie said. “I know you’ve been through a lot. I just want you to know how much I, er, we… the whole town…appreciates what you did over there. Let me show that appreciation by buying your lunch. Can I do that?”
“Sure,” Jamie said. “I’m meeting Corey Jones in a few minutes, but I’m early. Thanks very much.”
“Good. I’ll let you two continue your conversation about Old Jupiter. Shelby here is quite the huntress. Did she tell you she killed a beautiful 10-point buck last year with a bow and arrow? You and I can catch up later.” Cecil Haynie carefully patted Jamie on the shoulder and turned around and hurried back toward the pharmacy.
“War hero?” Shelby asked. “And what’s Mr. Haynie talking about when he said ‘fill in the blanks’?”
“I’m an Army grunt,” Jamie said. “But I’m not any kind of hero. I just got back from deployment.”
“Were you in fighting somewhere?”
“And your leg?”
“I caught a piece of a ricocheting bullet. Dumb thing to let happen, huh?”
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “How is it now?”
“To be honest it’s pretty messed up, but it could have been a whole lot worse. A lot of nerve damage but at least I can walk. And it’s much better than it was. Two weeks ago I was hobbling round on two crutches. In a couple more weeks, I hope I’ll be off this one altogether.”
“Just in time for deer season,” she said with a smile. “Then you are from around here, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but I’ve been gone for almost four years. I graduated in ’09 and joined up after that. How about you?”
“I just graduated in June,” she said. “You know what? I think I remember you now. What’s your last name?”
“You’re not gonna like me very much,” he said guardedly. “Hardin. Jamie Hardin.”
“Are you….” She looked back at Old Jupiter. Her head was spinning.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m Big Jim’s grandson.”
“Why do I think I’ve been taken for a fool?” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “You suckered me in and let me tell you all that stuff about Old Jupe. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to talk about the… train accident. Was it … your … family?”
“Yes, it was my brother,” Jamie said. “I was 10. But that was a long time ago. It’s okay.”
“You should have told me,” she said. “Before I started spouting off. You must think I’m an idiot. You just let me keep talking.”
“You were sincere and I was enjoying it,” he said. “Don’t be offended. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just got back in town yesterday. Look, I’ve been in a hospital in Germany for the last six weeks. It was good therapy for me to hear a story from the past—especially about Old Jupe. Me and Old Jupe go back a long way.”
“I can imagine,” she said. “But still you should have told me. I have to get back to work now but I’ve enjoyed talking to you.”
She started to walk away but paused.
“Could you… Do you think you might want to… fill in the blanks some time? I really would like to know the whole story.”
“That would be nice,” Jamie said. “I’d like that very much, but under one condition.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“I want to hear all about your 10-pointer.”
“You got it!” she said.
Jamie took a seat in one of the window booths and ordered a chocolate shake.
Old Jupe possessed one of those enormous racks that at first glance didn’t look as large as it actually was. With deceivingly long main beams that measured 28 inches and some change, the main-frame 6×6 rack was strikingly beautiful. Both brows were 6 inches long. Both G-2s were 12 inches long, and each had matching triple splits that spiralled upward like a trident, giving the rack some unusual character. The inside spread was only 17 inches but still wide enough to give the rack a stately appearance. The G-3s were also 12 inches. With 10-inch G-4s and 6-inch G-5s, the highly symmetrical rack looked more typical than non-typical. But a 7-inch burr point grew out and upward on the right side, and six other smaller burr points on both sides gave the rack a non-typical score of just over 218 inches.
Jamie sat there sipping his milk shake and watching Shelby Green and several other employees go about their work behind the counter. He grinned to himself about leading her on like that. It certainly hadn’t been intentional. It just happened. A pretty girl that liked to hunt… Very interesting… But she had mentioned something about a boyfriend. Girls as pretty as Shelby Green always had boyfriends. Too bad.
Jamie was lost in his thoughts when Corey Jones came bouncing through the door. Jamie stood up and the two men hugged for several long seconds. Corey had tears in his eyes.
“God, I’m glad to see you,” he stuttered.
He slid into the booth opposite Jamie as Jamie sat down.
“I’m glad you’re out of that hellhole over there. You’re not going back are you? I hope you’re home for good. Tell me you’re not going back for a third deployment.”
“I’m not sure what I’m gonna do yet,” Jamie said.
“Tell me you’ve decided to get out. It hasn’t been the same around here for the last two seasons. Did you get all the GON magazines we sent you?”
“Yeah I really appreciate it. Everybody appreciated it. We have lots of deer hunters in my platoon. Missing two opening days and two complete seasons was tough. I’m not sure what I’m gonna do yet about re-upping.”
“Oh, so you’re telling me that dodging bullets and rockets from those idiotic fanatics over there was easier than missing opening day. Yeah, right. I believe that.”
“It would have been one thing if they knew how to shoot. But they can unleash 100 rounds from their AKs and never hit anything. So yes, missing deer season was hard.”
“Well somebody apparently got lucky. You almost got your leg blown off. You must have had a guardian angel.”
“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” Jamie said. “But I did have an angel, that’s for sure. I’ll tell you all about it, but right now I want to hear about the lease and the deer you’re seeing.”
“Well you’re not gonna miss this opening day old buddy. Our property is looking pretty darn good. All our summer plots are doing great. I’ve got 30 acres in corn and soybeans in four different fields and another 10 acres ready to put in wheat and oats. The corn’s taller than you or me. We’ve had a lot of rain. And we’ve got some great trail-camera pictures like I told you. There’s a big 4-year-old 10 and a real heavy 9 that may be older than that. Plus several bucks from last year that I haven’t seen yet. Things are looking good buddy!” He glanced over to the wall above the lunch counter. Then without knowing how prophetic his words might prove to be, he added, “Who knows? We may even have a buck like Old Jupiter walking around out there.”
Shelby came over to take their orders.
“This is my friend Corey Jones,” Jamie told her. “We played football in high school together.”
“Yes, we already know each other,” she said, smiling at Corey. “My boyfriend hunts on the farm right next to Corey’s land. Uh, I guess that’s part of your grandfather’s old farm. ”
“That’s right,” Jamie answered. “And who is your boyfriend?”
“His name is Skeeter Davis. You probably went to school with him too. You know him?”
“Yes, I know him,” Jamie answered, trying to hide the look of shock on his face. “He’s the biggest poacher in Dodge County!”
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