The Quest For Blackbeard: Turkey Hunting Fiction Series
"The Thrill Of The Chase"
The large black gobbler came tip-toeing over the small rise like a perfectly balanced ballerina, zigzagging from side to side as if he were floating above the leaves on nothing but thin air. He took a few quick steps, paused, puffed up, and then continued his dainty toe-stepping ballet toward the unsuspecting decoy. His thick, dark beard, almost touching the ground, resembled a length of braided rope hanging down from his chest.
A small rise less than 30 yards in front of Cliff Conway obscured his view beyond, but he had a clear view of the woods on both sides of the rise for a good 80 yards out. Wouldn’t you know it, Cliff thought, Casanova must have known that tempting decoy was there waiting for him all along, but how he gained that knowledge without being able to see it from the other side of the rise is beyond me. How did he know?
In no time the huge gobbler was beside the fake hen, puffing, strutting, spitting and fanning his wide tail. In addition to catching the lone hunter totally off guard, the turkey’s grand and sudden entrance had so unsettled the young man that all he could do was to stare in disbelief with his mouth open as the largest, most impressive gobbler he’d ever seen danced around that hen less than 25 yards away as though he were a lovesick jake. Usually cool and collected, the young hunter had never had buck fever a day in his life—until now.
Cliff was well hidden. He was sitting on a small camo stool in front of a large pine. He was covered in the green camo cloth containing cut-out leaf patterns that he always carried with him in the woods. The cloth blended in with the ground cover extremely well. Directly in front of him was a 3-foot-high section of camo netting that he had set up in a semi-circle around the tree. Cliff’s bow rested across his lap. Had he not been so flustered, he would have raised the bow and attempted to draw it back when the turkey was looking the other way. But that thought hadn’t occurred to him. He was in too much of a hypnotic state. As those few critical seconds unfolded, he became too rattled to function normally.
By the time Cliff regained his senses, the gobbler was totally immersed in trying to impress the lovely hen. Since she was not responding to his advances, he was showing signs of frustration. Then it happened! A second gobbler, much smaller than the first, came sneaking in from Cliff’s left side. The dancing Casanova changed his demeanor like night and day. Suddenly he had fire and fury in his eyes. Witnessing the irate gobbler turn into a demon bird, the new gobbler suddenly focused on the strange lump against the tree. He froze, staring at Cliff. Then he began putting as he quick-stepped and left for parts unknown.
Sensing danger, Casanova zeroed-in on the peculiar lump, as well. Cliff was finally in the process of raising his bow when the alert gobbler saw the movement of his arm. With a few quick steps, the seasoned old bird hurriedly retreated over the rise and disappeared.
Never again, will I allow this to happen, Cliff thought. If I had a shotgun instead of a bow, I would have sent a load of No. 5s after you, but I know in my heart that a bird as regal as you deserves better. I’ll get my revenge another day. Regal or not, you’re gonna pay for what you did to me today.
“Timing is everything,” Cliff whispered as he watched the two hens feed until they were out of sight.
Cliff always named the turkeys and deer he hunted. Now, after witnessing Casanova’s spontaneous transformation into a “devil bird, ” he decided to drop that name in favor of something far more menacing.
“You may be a Casanova at heart,” he whispered, “but I saw the rage in you when that second gobbler appeared. From now on, I’m gonna call you ‘Blackbeard,’ after the notorious pirate. You two have a lot in common. Ol’ Blackbeard the pirate was always out to plunder other ships, while you were out to plunder that innocent young hen. But you also tried to plunder my sanity, and you did a pretty good job of it. Next time I’ll be ready for you… Wait till I tell Freddie. We figured there had to be some big gobblers on this property dying of old age ’cause nobody hunts ’em, and we were right. I’ll be doing the Holloways a favor when I kill you…”
All his life Cliff had been intrigued with the pirates and buccaneers that plagued the Caribbean and the southeastern U.S. coast in the 1700s. Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was his favorite. Blackbeard was one of the fiercest English pirates who had ever flown the Jolly Roger flag. He was well known for instilling terror in his enemies and those unfortunate souls who fell into his hands whenever he captured a ship on the high seas, mostly through intimidation. In his heyday, he wore a large black tricorn hat over his shoulder-length black hair. He also sported a long black beard that he often plaited into pig tails tied off with colorful ribbons that resembled a dozen turkey beards.
But the thing that most instilled fear in his enemies was his frightful appearance just before he boarded a ship that he planned to plunder. Before every battle, he would dress in black and strap as many as six pistols to his chest on a special sling, along with an assortment of swords and knives. He would then tie small bundles of hemp or cannon fuses to the ends of his hair and light them on fire, allowing them to slowly burn around his head. As his terrified enemies stared at the smoke swirling around his head, his reputation as the devil incarnate grew far and wide. Most ships surrendered without a shot being fired.
Okay. I realize I’m comparing a beautiful game bird to a bloodthirsty rogue, Cliff thought, but even though you are flamboyant and colorful, you’ll never intimidate me like that again.
• • • • •
The Holloways owned several thousand acres of rolling, middle Georgia farm and timberland. Much of the farm had been planted in pecan orchards. The land contained three small lakes and several hundred acres of open cultivated land. The family had long managed the land for quail. Rumor had it they didn’t care much about the abundant deer and turkey populations. In fact, it was said the caretaker, Swede Reynolds, intentionally gut shot deer to get rid of them because they were considered a nuisance. Buck or doe, he reportedly shot them in the gut and let them go off in the woods to die. Ellis Holloway III, patriarch of the family, never condoned any type of wanton killing, but much of it was done behind his back.
This knowledge only fortified Cliff’s belief that he had every right to hunt deer and turkeys on Holloway land whenever he wanted. Even though the land was posted, and even though Swede Reynolds spent considerable time patrolling the roads and trying to catch poachers, this didn’t deter Cliff or his friend Freddie Burns in the least. Old Swede would never catch them. They were too crafty.
Eighteen-year-old Cliff Conway was invincible, or so he thought. He and Freddie Burns had been sneaking onto the posted property belonging to the Holloway family for almost two years, and they’d never been caught. Freddie was two years older than Cliff. Several years earlier he had talked Cliff into going with him on Cliff’s first poaching adventure. Freddie had a friend who dropped them off on the highway in the predawn darkness, and they slipped into the property to hunt deer with their bows. Freddie had managed to kill a doe that day, and they sneaked it out after dark. Since then, the two boys had hunted deer and turkeys and fished two of the more remote lakes so often they began thinking of the land as their own private hunting preserve.
There had been some close calls with Swede, who was always lurking around, but the two young lawbreakers always managed to get away. Cliff would rather hunt than eat. Two years of evading Swede and the game warden had made him smug in his success. Both boys were young, over-confident and on a mission. To Cliff’s way of thinking, he could outsmart any game warden. It was much like a game of chess. He loved the thrill and pure exhilaration and adrenalin rush it gave him to be doing something he knew he was not supposed to be doing. Namely fishing in the secluded back cove of Jameson Lake, where he and Freddie had caught some 5-plus-lb. bass and hunting old man Holloway’s turkeys and deer with a bow. The boys always planned each trip very carefully, and they had several escape routes planned with Freddie’s friend in advance.
But everything between the boys was not all rosy. Cliff had gotten some trail-camera photos of an exceptional 11-point buck the previous season. He had planned to hunt the deer, but Freddie had sneaked in and disturbed the area several times without telling Cliff. The buck vacated the area, and Cliff never saw any sign from him again. Freddie had also been arrested recently for shoplifting in a local sporting goods store. Cliff could justify his poaching escapades because he loved to hunt so much, but he drew the line when it came to stealing. He somehow believed he actually deserved to hunt on Holloway’s land, but Freddie always wanted to push the envelope.
Despite all of the negatives, turkey season had just opened, and Cliff had agreed to accompany Freddie to the Holloway farm. Now that he had seen the huge bird he named Blackbeard, he had every intention of pursuing it. He had mixed emotions about telling Freddie about the encounter. Late that morning, Cliff and Freddie met at a prearranged spot and hunted the afternoon together. Against his better judgment, Cliff gave in and told Freddie about Blackbeard. Just before dark, the boys roosted seven hens and jakes and were planning to come back the next morning. As darkness began to set in, they made their way toward the highway to the prearranged spot where Freddie’s latest girlfriend, who was drop-dead-gorgeous, would pick them up.
Like always, Freddie put out a red Coke can on the edge of the pavement. Molly, his latest girlfriend, would approach the designated spot about 30 minutes after dark and look for the can. She would drive by once, turn around and come back and the boys would jump into Freddie’s truck. They had done this several times without a hitch, and they both felt confident about their strategy.
Thirty minutes after dark they spotted the headlights of an approaching truck coming toward them on the paved road.
“Right on time,” Freddie said.
The black four-door king cab slowed near the Coke and continued on its way. The boys could see Molly behind the wheel. A few minutes later, the truck returned and rolled to a stop near the Coke can. Molly cut the lights, and the boys walked out of the woods carrying their backpacks and bows. Through the window Cliff noticed that Molly seemed to have a strange look on her face. Just as he was about to reach for the back door of the king cab, it swung open and a tall uniformed man rose from his crouched position and gingerly stepped out.
“Evenin’ boys,” the game warden said. “Nice day to be in the turkey woods. Y’all have any luck?”
“Uh, what?” Freddie answered, totally flustered and confused.
“I said, did you kill anything?”
“Er… What do you mean?” Freddie asked. “We haven’t been hunting… We’ve just been practicing with our bows. Right, Cliff?”
“On posted land?” the game warden said before Cliff could speak. “Don’t lie to me, young man. I’ve had a long day.”
Just then everyone’s attention turned to another set of rapidly-approaching headlights. The second vehicle barreled toward them and darted in front of Freddie’s truck on the edge of the right-of-way. As it rolled to a stop, the blue lights of a state DNR truck began flashing. A much younger uniformed man got out and approached the others. “Everything all right, Sam?”
“Yes, everything’s fine, Gene. Seems like these two boys have been practicing with their bows on Holloway land, but they haven’t been hunting.”
“In the dark?” Sgt. Gene Hobbs asked. “That makes a lot of sense. You boys got night vision?”
“We weren’t on Holloway land,” Freddie said defiantly. “We were just walking down the highway. You have no right to…”
“Don’t make the situation worse, son,” Sam interrupted. “Gene, why don’t you take Freddie to your truck and talk to him while I have a little conversation with Cliff Conway here. Freddie, meet my partner Sgt. Gene Hobbs. I suggest you be respectful and tell him the truth.”
He turned to Cliff.
“Cliff, my name is Sam Matter. Most people call me ‘Big Sam.’ Gene and I work this area together.”
“We know who you are,” Freddie said, staring up at the imposing 6-foot, 4-inch game warden and wondering how he had hidden so easily in his truck.
“I’m sure we have a lot to talk about,” Sam continued. “Boys, leave your bows and your backpacks right here on the ground. Are either of you armed?”
“No sir,” they answered.
“Come with me Fred,” Hobbs said, waiting while Freddie put down his bow and walked toward the blinding blue lights. Molly sat nervously behind the wheel of Freddie’s truck.
“Turn the engine off,” Big Sam ordered.
Turning to Cliff, he said, “You and Freddie have been turkey hunting illegally on the Holloway farm, is that correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Cliff answered, studying the 50-something-year-old game warden.
“But how do you know our names? And how did you know that we would be coming out…”
“It’s my job to know things, son. That’s why I get paid so much,” he said, cracking a smile. “We’ve been watching you since deer season. The Holloways don’t take kindly to poaching and trespassing.
“You oughta be glad it was me who caught you instead of Swede Reynolds the caretaker. Swede doesn’t always abide by the rules like we have to do. He has some authority, but some of his methods are… well… let’s just say you don’t want to get caught by him on this property. In a way, we’re doing you a big favor, but you’re still in serious trouble. Even Freddie’s girlfriend is an accessory. But there may be a way for you to come clean and redeem yourself.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m gonna offer you a deal you can’t refuse,” Big Sam said. “But there will be a price to pay. Everything in life has a price. Look, I know a lot about you. I know you lost your father a couple of years ago, and it hasn’t been easy. I lost my dad when I was about your age, and I know how tough it is. I’ve talked to some of your high school teachers, and they seem to think you have a lot on the ball…”
“You’ve talked to my teachers at school? How do you know about my dad? Have you talked to my mom? How do you know so much about me?”
“It’s my job to know things about the criminals I’m after. I know your teachers, I know what kind of grades you make, and I know where you and Freddie live and where you buy your illegal beer. No, I haven’t talked to your mom. Not yet.”
“You think I’m a criminal?”
“You were breaking the law, weren’t you? Doesn’t that make you a criminal?”
“But I was only hunting… I wasn’t robbing or murdering anybody…”
“Yes you were. You were robbing the Holloways. And who knows what you might do next with your pal Freddie?”
“I’m no criminal.”
“What are you then?”
“I’m a hunter. The Holloways don’t even care about their turkeys or deer.”
“How do you know they don’t care?”
“Everybody knows that. Mr. Holloway is only interested in his quail.”
“So that gives you the right to poach on his property? You were stealing from him by trespassing and potentially killing game illegally on his farm. That’s really no different than going into his house and taking a valuable work of art right off the wall.
“Look,” Big Sam said flatly. “I’m not gonna stand here and argue with you. You and I both know you know the difference between right and wrong. I will say this… the things a young man does today have a way of following him around for the rest of his life. You’re too young to understand that now, but one day it’ll hit you like a lead balloon. Our time on this earth is short, son. You’ve gotta make the best of it and try to do the right thing by other people. You have a clear choice right now. There are two forks in the road. Don’t take the wrong one. Here’s my proposal. I’m gonna write you both a warning ticket. Next week, all four of us will go and see Mr. Holloway, and you and Freddie will apologize to him for hunting illegally on his land. You will offer to work around the farm plowing or doing other odd jobs on weekends this spring and summer until I tell you the debt has been paid. If I catch either of you poaching again, I will put you in jail and see to it that you lose the right to hunt for a long time. I know how much hunting means to you. From this day forward, you will make a solemn vow that you will never intentionally break another game law as long as you live.”
“You’re not going to arrest me and tell my mom?”
“No, you’re gonna tell her. I’m gonna release you both, although I have my doubts about your buddy. I hope I’m wrong. I hope his girlfriend knows what she’s getting into. If I were you, I’d find a new hunting partner.”
“That’s all I have to do? Go see Mr. Holloway and work?”
“They’ll be plenty of hay to cut in a few months. But you don’t know Mr. Holloway. Like I said… There will be a price to pay.”
“He’s that tough?”
“He didn’t get where he is by being stupid, son. He doesn’t take kindly to people stealing from him.”
“You think turkey hunting is stealing?”
“What else can you call it? You weren’t hunting, son. You were poaching. The turkeys and deer on this property certainly don’t belong to you, do they?”
“But what? Well?”
• • • • •
Back in the front seat of Gene Hobbs’ truck, Freddie was still being defiant.
“Your girlfriend dropped you off before daylight this morning and you’ve been hunting all day?” Gene asked. “Is that correct?”
“No, that’s wrong. We weren’t hunting,” Freddie insisted.
“This is serious stuff, Freddie. You can go to jail and lose your truck over this.”
“Lose my truck? What for? For walking down the road at night? You gotta to be kidding…”
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