The Quest For Blackbeard Part 3: Turkey Hunting Fiction Series
Things were going almost too well for Cliff. He continued working hard at the Holloway farm on Saturdays. He had killed a nice gobbler with a shotgun, and he knew he was lucky to have a special relationship with Big Sam. He had not seen or talked to Freddie Burns in many weeks, but by a stroke of luck, he had bumped into Freddie’s former girlfriend Molly at the local Walmart. Molly had severed her relationship with Freddie, and now she and Cliff were dating. Cliff was floating on clouds.
Whenever he worked on the farm, Cliff tried to heed Big Sam’s advice and maintain a safe distance from Swede. Sam insisted that Swede was bad news, and Cliff took that advice well. Several friends of Mr. Holloway had been invited to hunt turkeys on the farm in April. Cliff cringed every time he heard a shot during several of those work days, hoping that Blackbeard had not been in someone’s sights. He longed to hunt Blackbeard with his bow. By the end of April, at least one gobbler and a jake had been killed on the farm, but as far as Cliff knew, Blackbeard was alive and well. After working five Saturdays in a row, Mr. Holloway cornered him one afternoon and actually paid him a compliment.
“You’re doing such a good job, I may just have to start paying you a little,” he said in a joking tone.
Cliff was shocked that Mr. Holloway was warming up to him.
Cliff didn’t care about being paid. All he wanted was a chance to hunt Blackbeard. That’s all he could think about. He got his chance early in May.
“Tell you what, son,” Mr. Holloway said. “We only have about 10 days left of turkey season. Nobody else is coming in to hunt, and you’ve done an outstanding job around here. Why don’t you take the day off next Saturday and go after that ol’ gobbler… what’s his name?”
“Blackbeard,” Cliff said.
“You really mean it, Mr. Holloway?”
“Of course I mean it, son,” Mr. Holloway answered. “You’ve worked hard these past few weeks, and you deserve it. If you kill him, let me know. I want to see that bird. By the way, where did that name come from? Does he really have a solid black beard?”
“No, sir,” Cliff answered with a smile. “I’ve always loved pirates. I’ve read a lot about Blackbeard, who was one of the most feared pirates in history. When I saw that big gobbler intimidate another gobbler, I named him Blackbeard.”
“That’s an appropriate name for a boss gobbler,” Mr. Holloway said. “Good luck… And if you get him, bring him by and let me see him.”
“I will Mr. Holloway. You’ll be the first to know if I kill him.”
• • • • •
Cliff was beside himself all week. Friday night was reminiscent of the night before Christmas when he was six or seven years old. He got little sleep. Despite the difficulty factor, he was determined to hunt Blackbeard with his bow. He knew he could borrow Big Sam’s shotgun any time he wanted, but he was dead-set on trying to collect his next longbeard with an arrow. He’d been practicing all week with his bow and with his mouth call. He was ready.
Saturday morning broke clear and cool. Cliff decided to go to the hardwood ridge where he had first seen Blackbeard. Since he had not been able to do much scouting, he felt this was a good starting point. He reached the hardwood ridge an hour before daylight. He placed his stool against a different tree and put out his camo netting. He placed his decoy in a flat spot closer to the lip of the ridge top where the big gobbler had appeared.
As the woods began to lighten up, he heard several turkeys fly down over to his left, but none of them gobbled. Within a few minutes, he heard several hens talking to each other as they fed across the ridge. No gobblers around here, he thought. The hens apparently fed away from him, and the woods became silent. He decided to stay put for at least an hour to see if he could hear a gobbler. It was nesting season now, and Cliff knew it was prime time for anxious gobblers to be trolling the woods for receptive mates. He called lightly several times but never got a response. He knew he was in a good spot, and he waited patiently.
An hour later, he heard what sounded like a lone hen yelping loudly in the distance. Something about the sound and the rhythm of the calling seemed out of place. Then it dawned on him. That’s not a turkey, that’s another hunter calling. He listened with his hand cupping his ear.
Yep, that’s definitely a human, not a turkey….
Cliff knew no one else had permission to be in these woods. Who could it be? he wondered. Then it hit him like a bolt of lightning. I’d know that calling style anywhere! He immediately stood up, ripped his facemask off and started moving toward the sound. It had to be Freddie. Cliff was fighting mad.
He silently made his way through the woods toward the sound, wondering what he would say and do when and if he confronted his one-time friend.
Stay calm, don’t do anything crazy, he told himself.
He reached a little creek bottom and immediately spotted a camo-clad hunter with a rifle sneaking through the woods on the other side. The hunter stopped and started calling loudly with a mouth diaphragm.
“Bad calling at its worst,” Cliff said loudly.
Freddie Burns spun around and looked across the creek. Recognizing Cliff, he walked over to the water’s edge.
“Hey, Bro, I thought I might run into you today. Just like old times, eh?”
“I can’t believe you have the nerve to be doing this,” Cliff said.
“What kind of rifle is that? A .22 magnum?”
“You got it, Bro. Makes a great turkey gun. A little louder than I like but…”
“You’ve got 10 minutes to get your sorry rear end off this property,” Cliff said. “If you don’t, Big Sam will hear about this.”
“I heard you and Big Sam are gettin’ pretty cozy,” Freddie said sarcastically. “First you kiss up to the enemy, and then you steal my girlfriend.”
“I didn’t steal Molly. You know as well as I do that she was ready for a change.”
“But you had to give her a shoulder to cry on? Didn’t you? Nice way to treat your best buddy.”
“You’ve never been my best buddy, and it’s none of your business if I’ve been seeing her. She was more than ready to move on. Speaking of moving on, it’s time for you to get off this property.”
“You gonna make me?”
“If I have to… Where’d you park your truck?”
“Behind the old Barnes house on the west side of the property if it’s any of your business…”
Cliff knew that his bow was no match for a .22 magnum rifle, but he knew he had to try and bluff his way ahead regardless.
“Let’s go,” Cliff said. “This is your last time on Holloway land.”
“You don’t have to go with me,” Freddie said. “I can find my way out.”
“I don’t mind a bit,” Cliff said. “You lead the way.”
It was half a mile through the woods to the old Barnes home place. Freddie had pulled his truck around behind the abandoned house where the thick privet and kudzu made a perfect hiding place. Few words were spoken as they walked through the woods. When they reached Freddie’s truck, Freddie turned and said, “You’re gonna regret doin’ this, ol’ buddy. If you can hunt on this property, so can I. I can’t believe you treat your huntin’ buddies so shabby.”
Cliff was about to speak when two armed men suddenly emerged from the bushes. Swede Reynolds was holding a Glock pistol, while Vince Davis, Swede’s sometime assistant and part-time farm worker, held a pump shotgun.
“Well, well, well,” Swede said, staring at Cliff. “Lookie what we got here…. Two birds of a feather caught in the act…”
“I found him poaching,” Cliff said, motioning toward Freddie. “I swear. Mr. Holloway told me I could hunt today. I was making sure he was leaving Holloway property.”
“Vince, get that man’s gun,” Swede ordered.
Vince grabbed Freddie’s .22 magnum rifle out of his hands.
Swede stared at Freddie.
“What you got to say for yourself, boy?”
Freddie nodded toward Cliff.
“You might as well tell him, Cliff. He’s gonna find out anyway.”
“Tell me what?” Swede asked.
Freddie sighed deeply, and said, “Well, Cliff asked me to hunt with him today. He said it would be just like old times. He said you were stupid and that you’d never be able catch us. Isn’t that right, Cliff?”
Swede’s face turned crimson. The rage began to build, and without thinking, he hit Cliff across the face with the back of his hand and knocked him down.
“No, Swede, that’s a lie,” Cliff yelled from the ground. “You’ve got to believe me.”
“Wait till Mr. Holloway hears about this!” Swede yelled.
“What’re you gonna do to us,” Freddie asked.
“There’s a lot I could do, boy, and a lot I’d like to do right now, but I think I’ll let the boss man decide on that. I think Mr. Holloway would like to hear about this…”
He turned toward Cliff.
“Once a poacher always a poacher, ain’t that right, boy? That’s what I always say. Right, Vince? I knew you two were in cahoots and just pulling the wool over Mr. Holloway’s eyes. You’re as sorry as your friend here.”
Swede pulled out a pair of handcuffs.
“Cuff ’em together Vince, and then we’ll all go see Mr. Holloway.”
“No, you’ve got it all wrong,” Cliff said.
Swede radioed ahead to his boss, and all four drove to the pole barn in Swede’s Jeep. Mr. Holloway was waiting when they arrived. He had already put in a call to the game warden.
“What’s going on here?” he asked Swede as Cliff and Freddie got out of the vehicle. “Why are these men handcuffed together? Take them off at once.”
Vince pulled out a key and unlocked the handcuffs.
“We caught ’em red-handed, Mr. Holloway,” Swede said. “Huntin’ together over near the Barnes section.”
“Who is this?” Mr. Holloway asked, looking at Freddie.
“This is the famous Freddie Burns,” Mr. Holloway. “He’s the other half of this poachin’ operation. I’ve been tryin’ to catch him for months. Looks like Cliff Conway here is in cahoots with his old poachin’ buddy.”
Mr. Holloway looked at Cliff.
“Is this true, son?”
“No sir. I caught Freddie on the property near where I was hunting for Blackbeard, and I was walking him to his truck to make sure he was leaving the property when Swede showed up. I tried to tell Swede what was going on, but he wouldn’t listen to me. This is the first time I’ve seen Freddie in almost two months, Mr. Holloway.”
“You might as well tell him we were hunting together,” Freddie said with a smirk on his face.
Just then a green DNR truck pulled up next to pole barn. Gene Hobbs got out and looked around at everyone.
“Morning Mr. Holloway, Swede, gentlemen. How may I be of assistance?”
“It seems as though Fred Burns is up to his old tricks—trespassing and hunting on my property without permission,” Ellis Holloway answered.
“I’d like to press charges.”
“As you wish, Mr. Holloway,” Gene said. “But before we sort all this out, can I have a word with you and Cliff… er… in private?”
“Certainly,” Ellis Holloway answered. “Let’s go over by the shed.”
The three men walked over to the shed while Swede and Vince stayed behind with Freddie.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Mr. Holloway, Cliff,” Gene said in a low voice, “but I think you know that Sam went in to have some tests done about two weeks ago.”
“Yes, he told me he was going in,” Ellis Holloway said.
“Well, the results just came back,” Gene said. “Sam has Stage 4 lymphoma, and they’re only giving him a few months to live.”
• • • • •
One Year Later
The new turkey season had been open for almost two weeks. After receiving the devastating news about Big Sam from Gene Hobbs one year ago, Ellis Holloway had been very understanding concerning the poaching matter with Freddie Burns.
“I know you’re telling the truth about finding him in the woods, son,” he had told Cliff.
Then, just as Gene Hobbs was about to write Freddie up, Ellis stepped in and said, “I believe in second chances, young man, or, maybe in your case, third chances. I’m gonna let you go this time, but don’t ever let me catch you on this property again. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes sir,” Freddie answered as respectfully as he could. “Thank you Mr. Holloway. I think I’ve learned my lesson.”
Freddie had not been seen or heard from since. Cliff and Molly had become a real item, and they were talking about getting married. Cliff continued working on Saturdays throughout the summer and fall, and finally Mr. Holloway stopped him one day and said, “I don’t feel right about not paying you for your work. From now on, you’re on the farm payroll.”
“If you’ll just let me turkey hunt next spring in return for work, that’s all the payment I need,” Cliff had told him.
Mr. Holloway agreed. “That’s a deal!” he said.
Cliff had done considerable scouting in January and February—with his new best hunting partner Molly—and the pair had managed to sneak up on Blackbeard and the flock that he stayed with on two occasions. Cliff felt confident that he would have a good chance to kill the turkey under the right circumstances.
But the good news concerned Big Sam. Despite such a devastating prognosis, he had responded well to treatment, and now the doctors were giving him an even chance for a full recovery. Opening day of turkey season had been non-eventful for Cliff, and now, on the second Saturday of the new season, he had solicited the help of Big Sam.
“I know how good you are with that wing bone,” he told Big Sam. “If you’ll call for me, I believe I can kill Blackbeard with my bow.”
Despite having lost 30 pounds and being bald from chemotherapy and radiation, Sam had been a trooper. He gladly consented.
“I’m tired of looking at hospital walls,” he said. “It’ll be good to get out in the woods and breathe some pure air,” he said. “But I think I’ll tote my shotgun along just in case we get into some other good birds.”
On the appointed day, Big Sam set up about 30 yards in the woods behind Cliff on the edge of a field where Cliff and Molly had seen Blackbeard with his flock at least two times. About 8 a.m., the flock came out on the opposite side of the field. Miraculously, Big Sam’s calling with his wing bone got Blackbeard’s attention.
Blackbeard slowly ambled across the field and started strutting 25 yards from Cliff’s makeshift brush blind. Cliff came to full draw twice while Blackbeard was looking the other way, but he couldn’t get a shot.
Blackbeard started to walk back toward the flock. Big Sam called lightly and turned him around.
The big gobbler circled around Cliff’s position just out of bow range and stepped inside the woods. Then, incredibly, he made a B-line for the spot where Big Sam was sitting. At 10 yards, Sam couldn’t hold back. The woods exploded, and Blackbeard was down. Cliff jumped up and ran to the flapping bird.
“I had no intention of shooting him,” Big Sam said excitedly. “It was almost self defense… He was right on top of me… I… shot without thinking. It was totally a reflexive action. I knew he was about to see me … I’m so sorry, son. I really am. I didn’t intend for this to happen.”
“Sam… You don’t have to apologize!” Cliff said loudly with a beaming smile.
He squatted down and started stoking the turkey’s long beard.
“I’m glad you got him. He’s beautiful. I couldn’t get a shot, and you were right to shoot. He would have been gone. Congratulations! You deserve him more than I do. Nobody in the world could have called him in like you just did. You earned him in every way. I’m just glad to be with you. This hunt is amazing… Don’t you see? It marks the beginning of your victory over cancer. I’ll find plenty more birds like Blackbeard to hunt in the future. You deserve him a lot more than I do. It’s gonna make you well! I just know it! I’m glad you got him instead of me.”
Big Sam sat down on the ground next to Cliff and the big gobbler.
“I don’t know what to say,” Big Sam said. “Thank you for your attitude and your support. I don’t know if we can say I’ve been victorious over this cancer quite yet, but I do have the doctors all wondering, and that’s a good thing. If this does happen to be my last turkey, I want you to know this hunt means more to me than you’ll ever know. You’ve come a long way in the past 12 months, son, and I’m right proud of you. You’re right… This day has been amazing.”
“Thanks Sam. It’s been the best day I’ve ever had in the turkey woods, maybe the best day in my whole life. You are going to have Blackbeard mounted life size, aren’t you. You have to. He’s the turkey of a lifetime.”
“I hadn’t really thought about it but…”
“You have to Sam…
“No matter what happens in the future, this day will always be special.”
“Don’t talk like that. You’re not going anywhere.”
“I’m not planning on going anywhere, but you never know. I’ll fight this cancer with everything I’ve got, but a man has to be realistic at the same time.”
“I understand, Sam. But right now, you’ve got too many poachers to catch and too many turkeys to shoot to go anywhere.”
“I like that kind of thinking,” Sam said with a smile. “Let’s just hope you’re not one of those poachers in the future.”
“Those days are long gone,” Cliff said with a broad grin. “From now on, I’m on your team. Who knows? One of these days I may even end up being the most feared game warden in the county… just like you.”
“I’d love to live to see that day,” Sam said. “You’d make a fine officer.”
“There is one other little favor I’d like to ask, Sam.”
Sam shrugged. “Okay, what is it?”
“Molly and I plan to get married this summer right after we graduate, probably in August. Will you be best man at my wedding? And will you bring Blackbeard so we can put him on display at the wedding?”
“You sure ask a lot of a man, don’t you?”
Big Sam smiled.
“Well… Being that she’s about the prettiest young lady I’ve ever seen, how could I say no to that?”
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