The Old Man
The Dogwood is an under story tree which may grow to thirty feet in height. Its dark brown bark, with the color and consistency of an old scab, is set in tiny scaled patterns. It is an ugly little tree whose crippled trunk twists at odd angles lead by a crown in search of some measure of light from the forest canopy above. Yet, first in bloom, the Dogwood brings a barren forest alive each spring with white and rose colored petals. For this, the Dogwood is embraced by the inhabitants and forgiven its sins.
Spring comes early to the southern Appalachians. The Dogwood grows in such profusion, that in late March, the leafless forest is powdered in a cloud of white against the naked woodland brown. Then, grabbing the first warmth of the season's sun, hundreds of wild flower species come to life adding blues, yellows and violet to the Dogwood's sea of white. In the first week of April, the stunted southern Buckeye ushers forth columns of brilliant crimson trumpets which exhibit the most striking contrast to the delicate blossom of the Dogwood. Finally, the Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron come into bloom. Thus, by late April, the whole of the southern forest is displayed in glorious color.
The old man sat at the edge of the forest amongst this April splendor. Lounging in the morning's sun with his back against a giant hickory, he cast an occasional glance at an aircraft parked beside a private landing strip. 'Such arrogance,' he thought while looking at the twin-engine Cessna. World War II flyers were accustomed to painting their victories beneath the cockpit of their fighter aircraft. The nose of this Cessna had no meatballs or iron crosses from distant theaters of war. Painted in metallic blue, against the aluminum skin of this private passenger plane, were thirteen staffs with constricting serpents, the symbol of the physician, the caduceus.
There seemed to the old man, something wrong in such a boastful display of a lawyer's success. For each caduceus represented the scarred reputation of a well-meaning physician by medical mishap, and the resulting malpractice litigation. The thirteen victories displayed on this Cessna represented the loss by trial or settlement of ten, twenty or perhaps thirty million dollars or more to doctors and their insurance companies. Thus, by the misfortune of others, the lawyer who owned this aircraft had enriched himself and with extreme arrogance, had emblazoned his success beneath the cockpit canopy.
They would come today. A man does not spend great sums on aircraft he does not use and today is the first day of spring break. Millions of students would begin their week's vacation today and thousands of families would take to the highways and airways. If not today, then tomorrow. The old man would wait here beside the old hickory. He reached in his pocket for a package of Kool cigarettes. As he lit his smoke, he looked at the pack and wondered whatever happened to Willie the Penguin? During the war and for years after, the tobacco company had promoted their product with a penguin as a logo mascot. 'Smoke Kool, smoke Kool,' the bird would sing. Probably discontinued due to pressure from some animal rights group, thought the old man.
It was still early morning when a maroon Mercedes Sedan drove up the landing strip to the tail section of the twin-engine Cessna. The old man stabbed out his cigarette, then reached for a pair of binoculars which lay next to him on the ground. Focusing through the lens, he saw the object of his interest. Justin Phillips, a lawyer just past forty, left the driver's seat to walk to the back of the car. He wore designer jeans, a waist length brown leather jacket and to the old man's amusement, a white silk ascot. The woman with him was young, attractive and fashionably attired, but there were no children! The old man had distinctly read that Phillips had a son and two daughters. He looked again hard at the man's face. Yes, it was the same face he had seen in the Fulton County Daily Report. 'Well' said the old man under his breath, 'I see you've left your family behind for some special fun of your own, I'm sorry to disappoint you.'
Phillips opened the car's trunk, then reached for the handsome set of luggage which he began to stow into the aircraft's cargo compartment. The woman stood back watching, then stepped forward to embrace her lover once his chore was complete. She threw her head back laughing at some remark he had made. Phillips assisted the woman to the wing, then opened the cockpit canopy. He slid his hand down her posterior as she stooped to take her place in the starboard seat. Phillips jumped from the wing, adjusted the crotch in his tight jeans, then drove the Mercedes to the parking area and returned on foot.
The old man was partially concealed behind a thicket of witch-hazel. He sat upon the ground erect while assembling the parts of the rifle he had taken from his carrying bag. He placed the barrel and receiving group in his lap, fitted the wooden stock in place, then inserted the trigger housing group slamming the trigger guard down with the heal of his hand. Then, he looked to the weather sock at the end of the runway. There was a light breeze blowing across his flank. 'Three clicks left windage,' he muttered while adjusting the rifle's rear sight with three clicks of the windage knob. Estimating the distance, the old man turned the left knob on the rear sight two clicks for elevation and two clicks to adjust for his natural sight picture. He took a single thirty ought six cartridge from his beast pocket, inserted it in into the follower slide, then pulled the bolt back a quarter inch to release the rod's lock. The operating rod's spring slammed the bolt home driving the cartridge into the rifle's chamber with a jarring sound.
The old man assumed the rifleman's sitting position. His feet were spread well apart placed at a 45 angle. His back was arched forward with his right elbow on the inside of his right leg. With his right arm braced against the leather sling, the rifle butt sat snugly into his shoulder. His left hand gripped the small of the stock with the ball of his finger resting on the trigger. The muzzle protruded into the witch-hazel as the old man looked through the rear sight aperture across the front sight blade.
Phillips was completing his walk-around inspection moving slowly. The old man waited, watching him across the front sight blade until he stepped up on the wing. Then he began to take the slack from the trigger. Phillips stood on the wing for a moment gazing into the distance toward Kennesaw Mountain. It was a beautiful day for flying he thought, then turned toward the cockpit.
The bullet hit him in the nape of the neck severing his spinal cord and shattering his windpipe. His head bobbed abruptly as in a whiplash. In the split moment of consciousness left to him, he grabbed his throat with one hand looking down at the puzzled face of his companion. He opened his mouth to speak reaching out to her with his free hand. A deep colored goblet of blood ushered forth, drowning his words to a thin utterance. Dumb struck, the girl sat there then began screaming hysterically as Phillips sank to his knees. A dizzy cloud of darkness spread before his eyes and there was a loud buzzing sound in his ears. His body convulsed violently upon the wing with his chest heaving in a vain struggle for air. At last, the still lifeless body of Justin Phillips came to rest with his head leaning against the emblazoned emblems painted beneath the cockpit.
The old man took the rifle butt from his shoulder and sat still for a moment looking through the tangled trunks of the witch-hazel. He shook his head as if to scatter the vision of his work from his conscious thought with a face drawn in anguish, then low