The sun was stretching its extremities, getting ready to roll out of bed and onto our part of the world as two black specks halted my stealthy walk down a little hill leading into the bottom. The hens had not seen me and continued waddling along towards the fence line that separates our property from that of the cantankerous neighbor’s. I dropped in my tracks. To my dismay, the only seating and cover I found available was a thorn bush. I will dare not say tears welled up in my eyes from such an unexpected encounter, but you can just about bet my undivided attention rested on the matter at hand.
After finishing my first cup of coffee that fine Tennessee morning, I really had no intention of chasing another longbeard. My good friend, roommate, photographer extraordinaire, and newly acquired hunting buddy, Ian Rilliet, had connected on a fine gobbler the evening before and we celebrated his rite as a turkey hunter deep into the night. So I poured another cup of that steaming black liquid and contemplated the pending sunrise in the eastern sky.
A deep, throaty gobble sounded down the hill from my comfortable post just as I was considering breakfast.
“Might ought to go get him,” the voice beside me said. It was my dad who had been silently reading in the chair next to mine.
The bird was close and I knew just how to hunt him. Mere seconds later I was outfitted with vest, calls, and gun (I had already been wearing my camouflage for such emergencies) and was off in his direction. The gravel clicked and clacked under the coarse tires of the engineless thing called a golf cart. This vehicle, which we’ll now refer to as “farm cart,” serves on a farm where golf is considered useless when you can’t find a ball for all the Johnson grass.
So upon the thorn bush I sat as it found new areas to prod with the slightest movement of the uncomfortable hunter. The turkey was seventy yards out in front of my position and a little up the hill. He had hens with him. Perhaps I could persuade him to pick up one more for his harem.
This turkey I knew well. He had eluded many hunters on Rocky Top (the farm) and more than likely a fair share elsewhere in Moore County, Tennessee. There were no expectations of walking out with a weight over my shoulder. It was the last morning I would hunt our farm for the season and the “hunter’s ending” always seems to suit me fine. I was of mind to accept my fate again.
Just as I relaxed, sure that I would not have to encounter the pressure of a turkey’s keen eye, sure that I would not have to shoot through a small clearing in the trees, sure that I would not have to worry about posing for photographs and then dressing the thing, the movement of a possum walking 10 feet to my right made my heart skip a beat. No expectations are a vague disguise I like to wear when I think there’s a chance.
I began yelping softly. A gobble answered my call and drumming filled my ears. He seemed to be coming down the fence line. Movement out front and to the right confirmed this assumption. There was no tree to lean back against, but the hillside behind would break my silhouette. Leaning forward, drawing my prickly blind closer to me, I tried to control my breathing and forget about my throbbing lower back and midsection, all the while accepting the challenge of balancing my Mossberg across a shaky knee.
I don’t remember how long I’d been sitting there, but the old tom strode on down the fence line as slivers of light fell into the trees like they were meant to do so with the direction a pinhole camera. Steady he came until finally entering the small clearing. I let out a long, cool breath. Easing forward to brace for the shot, three more thorns entering my leg, I slid off the safety. I gently laid the pointer finger of my right hand on the trigger. One more yelp, a little louder, brought his head up. Here it comes you old booger! Click.
I checked the safety. It was off. I tried sliding the action forward. It was closed. It had to be the shell!
The old bird’s head was higher now. I had read the night before that a turkey has an acute sense of identifying sounds abnormal to the woods. A metal pin hitting a brass primer who had failed at his job may have been one of the examples. Yet he continued to stand. Perhaps he knew a creature just dumb enough to sit on a thorn bush to await his presence had finally outsmarted him. Perhaps he was overconfident in his years of sound defeats and perpetual victories over all enemies that he would again saunter off to the winner’s circle.
Before another questioning thought could span my brain, I racked the pump, bringing in another candidate for the position. And the right man he was! The second shell dutifully reported for work on time and did the job he was hired to do.
The ball of fire was just protruding from the eastern horizon as I lugged the magnificent old fighter back to the farm cart. His right spur was over an inch-and-a-half. I envisioned him as a Muhammad Ali–jabbing with his left, keeping the right low and out of sight until the perfect opportunity presented itself to deal a crushing blow.
Posing for pictures only captured the beauty of such an elegant bird of the southern woods. Soft light filled the background as my dad took the portrait. He poured me another cup of coffee as we resumed our posts on the front porch. Not another set of feet stirred within the house as the sun warmed our necks, the coffee our bodies, and the purity of this thing called hunting enlivened our souls. We spoke of these things directly without ever saying a word. We also listened to the story of our land without ever really having to acknowledge the speaker.
I didn’t think about the eight-hour drive home, away from the place and people I love the most. That would come later. But for another half-hour or so, with my father, watching the Good Lord work, unadulterated euphoria–the Tennessee morning–unfolded before us until my mother’s call for breakfast brought us back around. How she snuck a breakfast of sausage, eggs, and pancakes on us like that I will never know. Perhaps when she spied us in deep contemplation out on the porch, she just got right down to it, using whatever cover she could manage.
Images by Hunter Worth