A Tale Of Two Brothers: Part 2

Turkey Huntin’ Fools: Part two of a three-part fiction series

Duncan Dobie | April 5, 2021

“I can’t imagine how tough it is growing up without a daddy,” Uncle Eli said shaking his head. “That’s why I’ve tried so hard to let you two experience some of the finer things in life like turkey hunting.”

They were a sitting on the large front porch of his house in rocking chairs. Eli Mason lived on 75 acres off a dirt road. He had a 5-acre fenced pasture with several horses in his front yard and a river in his back yard. Just down from the house lay 30 acres of hayfields. The house was an old two-story farm house that he and his brother had grown up in.   

“If I could bring your daddy back today I’d do it in a heartbeat,” he continued. “He was a good man, the best man I ever knew…”

“Did you two ever fight?” Dansby asked.

“If yer askin’ me did we ever disagree on certain things, yes, we did, all the time. But if yer askin’ me did we fight like you two fight, I’d have to say nosiree… We never ever lifted a hand against each other. We never even thought about it. We were too close for that kind of nonsense…”

He stared at the brothers hard.

Dansby was nursing a fresh black eye and Cooper had a cut on his mouth. Earlier they had gotten in a scuffle over feeding a young colt in the barn, and as usual the scuffle had ended in a fight.

“We grew up doing everything together and helpin’ each other out whenever we could,” Uncle Eli continued. “We loved each other. We were so close that when he was hurtin’ about something, I felt it every bit as much as he did and vice versa. We lived to do things for each other. That’s the way most brothers are. When yer daddy married yer momma, I was the proudest man in the world… I was best man at the wedding. I was at the hospital the nights y’all were born.

“When we lost yer daddy in that auto accident it like to have killed me, too. I promised yer momma I would do everything I could to help raise you two the right way and give you the things you deserve. Now I know I can’t ever take the place of yer daddy… Nobody could do that and I wouldn’t presume to try. All I ever wanted to do was help you two get a good start on life and try to teach you to be good decent young men and good turkey hunters. That’s what Bradley would have wanted. I care about you two, and it hurts my heart to see you go at each other the way you do. Yer gettin’ older now and it’s gotta stop. Period. Yer near-about grown men now. We’re not going huntin’ again until you convince me that it’s gonna stop…”

The Easter Sunday incident had happened five years earlier, and not much had changed as the boys got older. Eli had made the boys work in his hay fields that summer until they earned enough money to pay back their mother for their ruined Sunday clothes.

“I’d die if I couldn’t go turkey hunting,” Cooper said. “I’d just shrivel up and die.”

“Well you two are gonna be 15 and 12 come March, and your turkey huntin’ days are over unless you find a way to stop all this fighting. This time I ain’t kidding. Enough is enough.”

• • •

As soon as he had turned 7 years old, Uncle Eli took Cooper turkey hunting several times during the season. The boy was a natural woodsman like his father had been when Eli and Bradley were growing up. That first year Cooper got a little anxious and missed two shots at two fine gobblers Uncle Eli had called in with his wing bone. Cooper was fit to be tied. He blamed it on the gun. Uncle Eli had bought the boys a Thompson/Center 20-gauge single shot shotgun at a gun show for them to cut their teeth on. It patterned well with a full choke, and Eli had killed two turkeys with it before he ever let the boys use it.

Cooper finally killed his first gobbler when he was 10. Uncle Eli had worked for two frustrating hours trying to get the old bird to cross a creek. He finally got the bird to come with some heavy cutting, and Cooper rolled the turkey with a well-placed shot. By then Dansby had just turned 7, and it was time for him to go on his first hunt with Uncle Eli that same season as well. Unbeknownst to Eli, each time he had taken Cooper hunting over the preceding three seasons, Cooper would come home and taunt his brother.

“Uncle Eli says I’m a natural in the woods but you’re not ready. You’re too immature and you can’t sit still. He’s never gonna take you if you can’t sit still.”   

Those cruel words hurt terribly. Although Cooper did have good instincts in the woods, he was the one who couldn’t sit still. Dansby was greatly relieved and a little surprised shortly after his seventh birthday.

“Happy birthday, son,” Uncle Eli told him a week before the season opened. “Now it’s your turn.”

Dansby was still naïve about calling in turkeys, but he had practiced religiously shooting at turkey heads on paper targets with the 20 gauge. He felt very confident using it. And he vowed to sit still. Long before he went on his first hunt with Uncle Eli, he would lean back against a tree in the woods and sit as rigid as a statue for many long minutes just to prove he could do it.

Cooper had just killed his first bird the week before after three years of trying when Uncle Eli took Dansby on his maiden hunt. On their first morning out, Uncle Eli owl hooted and received answers from three excited birds. He and Dansby set up on what they thought was the closest bird and two started coming in immediately shortly after they flew down. Uncle Eli did some cutting with his wing bone and both birds started going crazy trying to out-gobble each other and get to the prize first.

Dansby and Uncle Eli were sitting against a huge maple tree when one of the gobblers came charging in. The big tom stopped 20 feet away and started puffing up. Dansby had to move the gun slightly to get his bead on the bird’s head. He succeeded when the bird turned to one side as he was strutting. Uncle Eli made a low purr, and the gobbler’s head shot straight up.

“Now!” he whispered.

Before he could get the word out of his mouth Dansby’s gun roared. The shot literally took off the gobbler’s head. They had only been in the woods for 20 minutes. Unlike his brother, Dansby had killed a fine gobbler on his very first turkey hunt.

“Congratulations, son,” Uncle Eli said. “I’m right proud of you. I’ve never seen anybody so calm and collected, despite the fact that he near about ran us over!”

“It was pretty exciting,” Dansby said. “I didn’t have time to get nervous.”

Dansby’s gobbler had a 9 1/2-inch beard and 1 1/4-inch spurs. He weighed 19 1/2 pounds.

When the news reached Cooper, he was ripe with jealousy.

“You just got lucky. Uncle Eli knew that bird was there, and he was saving him for you. My gobbler was 28 yards away when I shot him. Uncle Eli said it was a fine piece of shooting. You couldn’t kill one at 28 yards if your life depended on it.”

Uncle Eli’s greatest wish was for the boys to get along and love each other the way he had loved their father. He prayed that turkey hunting might be a way to cement their loyalty to each other, but it seemed like the older they got, the more they fought. Because Cooper was the oldest, he usually prevailed, at least when the boys were small. They fought about anything and everything, but most often the squabbles were initiated by Cooper. Cooper could not control his anger, and he was obsessed with beating his brother at everything they did.

By the time Dansby was 13, he started fighting his 16-year-old brother on a more equal footing. They were almost the same size now. Despite the age difference, Dansby was getting stronger and more agile. Cooper no longer had a size advantage, and Dansby was starting to get in some good licks. Cooper began to realize he had to temper his rage or he might end up on the bottom of the pile.

Like their personalities, the boy’s turkey hunting techniques were as different as night and day. They each had plenty of passion, but they were complete opposites in methodology. Uncle Eli was letting them hunt some on their own now. He loved being with them. But he knew the day was rapidly approaching when they would strike out on their own.

Not surprisingly, Cooper evolved into a run-and-gun man, always aggressive in his calling and prone to over call. He sometimes frightened birds away in his haste. He was quick to react, had little patience, and sometimes pushed birds too hard. He always wanted to find out what was over the next hill. Sadly, he was also prone to step across someone’s boundary where he didn’t have permission to hunt. Yet somehow, he always seemed to be rewarded with his gobbler in the end.

Dansby was a sit-down-and-wait hunter with infinite patience. He believed in limited calling, and he was content to stay in one place for long periods, all day if necessary, using his skill and know-how to locate and wait out belligerent and stubborn old longbeards that had every intention of living forever.

Cooper was using a mouth diaphragm almost exclusively now, and he was getting very good results with it. He could make a turkey gobbler do just about anything he wanted with his calling style, that is, almost any turkey gobbler except for Sweeper. Everyone knew that Sweeper was in a category by himself. Dansby, on the other hand, had gotten very proficient with an old box call and a slate that Uncle Eli had made years earlier. He was also working hard at trying to master one of Uncle Eli’s homemade wing bone calls. Uncle Eli could work magic with his wing bone, and Dansby was showing considerable promise with an old trumpet call that had a great tone and was a little easier to use than one of Uncle Eli’s wing bones.   

Uncle Eli gave Cooper a Remington automatic 12-gauge shotgun for his 16th birthday. “Yer getting to be a man now, and it’s time you use a man’s gun,” he said. It packed a wallop with 3-inch shells, but he knew Cooper could handle it. He promised Dansby the same birthday present when he reached 16. For now, Dansby was perfectly happy with his Thompson/Center 20 gauge.

Despite the boys’ competitive affliction, Eli Mason reveled in the fact that by this time in their lives each young man was coming into his own as a very capable turkey hunter.

The downside was that as their experience and knowledge grew, so did that incomprehensible obsession to outdo each other. Uncle Eli considered it a curse, and it troubled him greatly.


A Different Kind of Picnic 

Eli Mason’s “Spring Rendezvous” had become one of the most anticipated highlights of turkey season. It had started out six seasons earlier when half a dozen of Eli’s closest hunting buddies came out of the woods about mid-morning one Saturday and had an impromptu cookout. That first year they met at a picturesque farm and had two fresh turkey breasts to fry up in Eli’s skillet.

The cookout became an annual event dictated by three things: the weather, the availability of morel mushrooms, and of course, fresh turkey meat. Over the years the numbers of hunters regularly attending had increased to more than 20. You were special indeed if you received an invitation. The boys had attended the last four cookouts with Uncle Eli under one condition—they had to help out with fixing the food and cleaning up, and they had to promise faithfully not to fight or argue.

Since the Rendezvous was such a special event, Cooper and Dansby kept their word. To all of the attendees the gathering had become a ritual that was every bit as important as opening day. Everyone looked forward to the 2019 Rendezvous with much anticipation. That year the woods were alive with more gobbling turkeys than anyone could remember, and expectations for a stellar season were felt by everyone. Uncle Eli planned to hold the Rendezvous on the third Saturday in April.

It seemed as though everything in nature was more pronounced that season. Wild flowers were blooming everywhere you looked, and a thousand different shades of green in the trees and shrubs that were starting to leaf out in the woods along the pasture edges made everyone take notice of spring’s magical renewal. For the boys, spending an hour or two listening to veteran hunters as they related tales of the day’s adventures or of days gone by was pure heaven. The camaraderie shared by these men coming together on a beautiful spring afternoon was unique on its own merits, but the mouth-watering morsels of turkey meat that Eli Mason coaxed out of his iron skillet could make a grown man cry. Life was good if you were a Georgia turkey hunter who had managed to wrangle up an invitation to Eli Mason’s Spring Rendezvous.

As if by some sixth sense, everyone seemed to instinctively know when the chosen day would occur even if they hadn’t been notified. As mentioned, it had to be a day when the morels were up. Then, shortly before noon, a dozen trucks and SUVs from a three-county area would slowly pull into the open fence gap at Henderson’s pasture next to the river to trade a few stories, show-off new calls, tell a few lies and eat their fill of freshly roasted turkey meat that would melt in your mouth.

On this particular Saturday the hunting gods had been extremely generous. Four longbeards were killed that morning and brought to the feast. While the boys got the fire ready, Eli went right to work on the tailgate of his truck boning out the breasts and cutting the soft white meat up into small bite-size chunks. His closest friends always said Eli had two great gifts in life—a knack for finding turkey gobblers and a knack for finding morels on south-facing hillsides. More often than not, he had several good gobblers figured out by this second or third week of the season. Likewise, he had several honey holes where he could usually pick a supply of morels earmarked for the Rendezvous.

Eli kept a large wooden crate in the back of his pickup with all the necessary items including a large cast iron skillet, a small wooden cutting board, a bag filled with hickory and oak chips and a jar of olive oil and seasoning for the tender turkey-breast morsels. He also brought along a well-used 18×24-inch metal grate to cook on.    

A fire circle made of large round river rocks had long ago been placed in a special spot under a large sycamore near the river.  After the boys had a good hot blaze going from downed wood found around the edge of the pasture, Eli would throw on the wood chips and place the grate on rocks about 6 inches over the fire. As the camo-clad hunters arrived in their trucks, they would back up to the fire circle, put down their tail gaits to sit on, or bring out some folding chairs to place around the fire.

Eli’s good friend Bobby Lee would always bring several gallons of sweet tea and a cooler filled with Cokes and other soft drinks and bottled water. Ben Statler, another dependable friend, always brought a generous amount of cole slaw and green salad mix. Eli had one rule that he asked his friends to observe. No beer or alcohol of any kind could be consumed at the cookout. Since everyone would be back in the woods hunting that afternoon, he didn’t want any issues with someone having one beer too many.

When the fire was ready, Eli placed the open skillet on the grate and lubricated it with a generous amount of olive oil. Then he threw in several heaping handfuls of turkey meat, sliced morels and his special seasoning. He slowly sautéed the mix until the bite-size turkey pieces turned a golden brown. Sometimes he would throw in some onions and carrots, but these took more time to cook and most of the men were anxious to get back to the turkey woods.

It didn’t take long to start serving up generous helpings on paper plates as batch after batch of the delicious fixings came out of the skillet. Twenty hungry turkey hunters were able to put away four delicious turkey breasts and all the salad or cole slaw they could eat in record time. Very little was left over.

Some of the men had been owl hooting with their voices to see who sounded the best. Cooper and Dansby were standing on the bank overlooking the river when Cooper suddenly pushed his brother so hard he almost went over the bank and into to water. Dansby responded by lowering his head and charging into his Cooper. Both boys went off the bank into a shallow pool and proceeded to roll around in the water with fists flying. Everyone was momentarily dumbstruck until several men jumped down into the water and pulled the boys apart. Eli was noticeably distressed and embarrassed. Most of the men thanked him for the feast, said their goodbyes and drove off.   

Only two trucks remained parked by the fire circle. Bobby Lee had stayed to help his Eli clean up. Both boys were sitting under different trees near the river by themselves, stewing.     

Finally Eli signaled it was time to leave. The boys got up and approached him. He looked them and shook his head.

“Ya’ just had to do it, didn’t ya?” Eli said. “Ya’ had to spoil a good thing…”    

Eli drove straight home without speaking another word. The hunting was over for the day.


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