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The Shotgun 3

Fiction Series Conclusion: “The Way of an Old Master”

Duncan Dobie | May 5, 2019

Mr. Peterson started talking, and he didn’t stop for two hours. During that two hours, I learned about the extraordinary life of a unique individual who dedicated the better part of his adult life to turkey hunting.

“Tom Dixon loved turkeys and turkey huntin’ more than anything else in the world except his wife,” Mr. Peterson began. “I always said that man had to be part Indian, but he swore he wasn’t. What he was, was the best turkey hunter and woodsman I ever knew, bar none, and I’m a forester. I’ve spent my whole life in the woods, but my knowledge wouldn’t come close to his. He had the instincts. He was a natural hunter. He thought like a turkey. He knew what they were thinkin’ before they did.

“First thing he did when he came back from the war was marry his sweetheart—Miss Betty—an amazin’ lady in her own right. The second thing he did was buy that Stevens 12 gauge. He had a rough time of it during the war. Landed with the D-Day invasion in ’44 and fought his way across France and Germany. Didn’t talk about it much, but told me one time he learned how to be a turkey hunter by killing German snipers. Somehow he got picked for that job, and he’d go in and hunt ’em down one by one. He came home without a scratch, but most of his buddies didn’t make it back, and that was hard.”

My chest tightened as I thought about my best friend growing up, Mason Phillips, who’d suffered the same fate in Viet Nam.

“The war could have ruined his life, probably shouda’ ruined his life, but Miss Betty wouldn’t allow it to happen. She was just what he needed to get back on his feet—a good wife who always supported and encouraged his turkey huntin’. They did everything together. She went huntin’ and fishin’ and campin’ with him all the time. Only wife I ever knew who’d get up at 3 o’clock in the mornin’ and fix hot biscuits for him; not just once, but every time he went. After we started huntin’ together, I often slept on the couch at their house. They took me in and treated me like one of the family. It was a different world back then, son.”

“Is Miss Betty still alive?” I asked.

“No, son, she passed away in 1997, the year Tom busted his leg all up. That woulda’ been the year he killed his 50th gobbler, but everything happened at once. Miss Betty had a bad heart. It was real sudden, and it liked to have killed Tom. Fact is, it prob’ly did kill him in the long run, ’cause he lost his will to live after she was gone. There was nothin’ anybody could do for him. Knowin’ him like I did, I knew that cast on his leg wouldn’t have slowed him down one bit in the woods, but he refused to go. ‘What about No. 50?’ I asked Tom. ‘That’s a milestone for you,’ I said.

“‘What about it?’” he answered with a blank stare.

“Even after his leg healed, he didn’t hunt at all in ’98 or the spring of ’99; we lost Tom in late ’99.”

“From what?” I asked.

“I could give you all the fancy medical terms, but son that man died of a broken heart.

“Enough about the bad stuff…  Let’s talk about the good things.

“He always wanted to hunt turkeys, so after he got his gun he got himself a box call from an old timer who made pretty good calls. He started huntin’ over by the river in Lincoln County in ’46. Missed the first bird he ever shot at, but he killed his first gobbler a year later in ’47.

“That really fired him up. He hunted that area until about 1951 or  ’52 when they started buildin’ the lake. Lake took all his huntin’ land, so he came down to McDuffie County and made friends with the largest landowner in the county, Moss Bailey. Moss was a big-time gun collector, and Tom found him a bunch of guns he wanted. So they became good friends. Funny thing was, Tom eventually had a large gun collection of his own, but he never hunted with anything except that old single shot. Always said he wanted to give the turkeys a fightin’ chance, and that a good turkey hunter didn’t need more than one shot. How he loved that old gun…”

Mr. Peterson paused, swept up momentarily with memories and thoughts of his friend Tom Dixon.

“He was a purist all the way,” he continued. “No blinds, no decoys and he didn’t believe in a lot of callin’. Just a few soft clucks, and that usually did it for him. You ever done much horse ridin’?”

“Some. Why?” I answered.

“Most people like to use fancy western saddles, so’s they can hold onto the saddle horn. It doesn’t take much skill to hold on. But any boy growin’ up on the farm will tell you they always rode bareback. That takes a lot more skill. Nothin’ to hold onto. That’s the way Tom always was. He always rode bareback in everything he did, especially turkey huntin’.

“When I first started huntin’ with him in the mid ’70s, I thought I knew all about how to kill a gobbler. I thought I was hot stuff. Boy did he bring me down to earth.

“He’d roost a bird, or two or three, and if he didn’t kill one right off the bat after fly-down, he’d follow ’em around all day ’till he did. He was in the woods so much he instinctively knew where they’d likely go during the day, or where they might roost that evenin’. He never was in a hurry to kill one, since he only killed one a year. He was always looking for the old veteran bird, maybe five, six years old, the ones we call ‘boss’ today. He jokingly called ’em ‘Christmas turkeys’ since they were bigger and fatter and looked more like Butterball, store-bought birds. One time he hunted the same big Christmas gobbler for three days running. Roosted him twice and killed him on the third afternoon.”

“Did he ever miss?” I asked.    

“Oh, yes, he missed his share… just like everybody I suppose. Always laughed at himself and said it humbled him to miss a shot.”

I asked, “If he was so passionate about turkeys, why did he only shoot one turkey each season for all those years? Why didn’t he want to stay in the woods and keep hunting?”

“There’s only one way I can answer that, son. He only talked to me about his war experience a few times, and one of those times he talked about killin’. He told me he had to kill a lot of Germans in order to save Americans. He didn’t tell me how many, and I didn’t ask. But I know killin’ was hard for him. He obviously had a lot of anger and guilt after the war. He never wanted to use his turkey huntin’ as a way to vent. Instead, he wanted to use it as a way to heal. And it worked.

“Also, you gotta remember that back when he first started huntin’, there were only a few birds. There were lots of places with no birds at all. He was happy to kill one turkey a year in those early days. Always said it was a gift from heaven when he shot one. Even when the limit got raised, he never wanted to shoot more than one. But he did stay in the woods and keep on huntin’. He loved to call in birds for other folks. He got more joy over helpin’ someone else kill a bird than he did when he killed his own. I can’t tell ya’ how many boys and men from around these parts killed their first bird with him, especially in the 1970s and ’80s. Most turkey seasons, he never came out of the woods.”

“Mr. Peterson, this may sound crazy, but ever since I found Tom’s note inside the shotgun, I feel like I’m supposed to hunt with it and try to kill No. 50. In Tom’s honor. Does that sound weird?”

“No, son. I think it would be a fitting tribute to him.”

“I need your help.”

“How so?”

“I want to do it on a tract of land he hunted on.”

“That shouldn’t be too hard. There are several tracts ’round these parts I could get you permission to hunt on. Maybe even part of old Moss Bailey’s place.”

“That would be great, Mr. Peterson.”

   

So here I was, trying to be a purist and hunt like Tom Dixon, trying to follow a large longbeard through the woods just as he would have done. I had always used a pop-up blind or built a ground blind, and I usually put out a decoy or two. I also did a lot of aggressive calling. I now found myself sneaking around a long ridge, moving very slowly and being extremely careful not to make any noise. I could hear some hens clucking maybe 150 yards ahead.

I thought about how lucky I was to be hunting on a piece of property that Tom Dixon had once hunted, and how fortunate I’d been to stumble into a large, mature gobbler like old Blue Boy right off the bat. I hoped and prayed I could honor Tom and his old gun by proving myself when the moment of truth came.

I had gone maybe 100 yards when suddenly I heard a hen yelping very loudly, and it sounded like she was moving in my direction. I immediately dropped down in front of a large maple with my knees up tight against my body, my gun resting on my left knee, Tom Dixon style, and my hat pulled down as far as possible over my face. I was wearing full camo—gloves and mask—and I felt well hidden. My box call was on the ground in easy reach.

It wasn’t any too soon. Within seconds, two hens appeared, feeding through the woods and coming straight toward me. Watching turkeys feed through the woods is a beautiful sight. They were scratching for insects, and I was so enthralled that I almost missed catching a slight movement about 70 yards off to my left. It was another turkey slowly moving through the trees. The first two hens passed by me about 25 yards away, and two more hens came from the right. The turkey I had seen stopped moving. Then suddenly he moved, and I could see a red head. A gobbler! But was it Blue Boy?

I waited as the second set of hens slowly worked their way past me, but the gobbler stayed back in the shadows well out of range. All at once one of the hens clucked loudly about seven or eight times, and he let out with a heart-stopping, blasting gobble that shook the woods. I didn’t have to call, and I couldn’t have moved anyway—he was too close. Thank goodness the hens did it for me. He let out with another ear-splitting gobble and started moving toward me.

I wish I could have recorded it with a video camera because he put on a spectacle. He was strutting, drumming, extending his wings and almost walking on air as he paraded about like a ringmaster in a circus. Every few seconds, he would stop, come to attention, and lift his head high into the air, but he was still out of range.

Come on. Come on, just a few steps closer. I think I stopped breathing altogether. I tried to keep my composure and focus on the shot. Just a few more steps, and he would be mine. Mr. Tom Dixon would be so proud. I had that brass bead on his neck just under his head, and when he paused and stood erect at a spot I estimated to be just under 30 yards, I squeezed the trigger. There was a loud roar, and in the split-second it took to regain my focus I could see him half-running, half-flying close to the ground as he disappeared into the trees. I could hear the hens behind retreating in the same fashion.

I was stunned. I was sick. I was so weak I couldn’t stand up. I sat staring ahead for several minutes, trying to reconstruct the shot, trying to make some sense out of what had happened. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I was supposed to kill old Blue Boy in Tom Dixon’s honor. Had I been fooling myself to think I could ever be as good as he was? After a few minutes I stood up weak-legged and went over to check for blood. Nothing. I slowly started walking back to my truck. My hunting for the day was over. I was totally drained, and I had nothing else to give.

If he had beaten me, it wouldn’t be so bad, I thought. But he presented himself on a silver platter, and I flat-out missed.

I must have looked like a zombie as I approached my truck and reached for my keys. I was just about to open the door when it happened. Some crows were making a racket way off in the distance. I was barely tuned-in to their frenzied commotion when another sound stopped me dead in my tracks—a gobble. The sweetest music in the world! I almost missed it because I had been so tuned out. But no, that was a gobble. I looked back toward the direction of the sound and instantly realized two things. First, after I missed the shot, he had gone off away from the hens and was probably alone. Secondly, that unmistakable sound had to have come from Blue Boy.

He gobbled again and suddenly my drained energy came back all at once, and I was a different person as I almost ran toward the sound.

You fool, I thought. You were about to give up and throw in the towel. Tom Dixon never would have given up in a million years. Now it’s time to get yourself together.

I slowed down and worked my way toward the direction of the gobble. You can’t afford to make another mistake, I told myself.

I knew he was close to the edge of the pasture where I’d seen the coyote. Fortunately I was familiar with that patch of woods. He gobbled again, and it was clear that he was looking for his hens.

Thank you, Lord, I thought.

When I felt like I was about 125 yards from his position, I set up next to an old logging road that led down to the open pasture. I got inside a thick stand of young pines and prepared to do battle. I made sure my gun was loaded and waited maybe five minutes. The woods were strangely quiet.

I got out my box call and made five or six light yelps.

No response. I waited 10 minutes. I could hear a plane flying over but no other sound. I picked up the box again. Tom Dixon had been a big believer in doing as little calling as possible. So I waited.

A large black object suddenly stepped into the logging road 80 yards away. He was huge, and he started walking slowly in my direction. How many times do you get a second chance, I wondered? This time, you can’t miss.

He stopped at 50 yards and stared right at me. Once again I think I stopped breathing. He lifted his head and gobbled loudly, sending chills down my back. I swear, the trees started swaying after he let loose.

He kept coming. The safety was off and I was ready; 45, 40, 35 yards… Keep coming you old warrior, I thought. This one’s for Tom.

The shotgun roared for the second time of the day.

I know I must have tensed up for a split second, waiting to see what would happen next. He was in the middle of the logging road flapping fiercely. I don’t remember getting up and running to him. All I remember is looking down at that incredibly large bird and all those beautiful feathers as my foot pinned his head, waiting for the flapping to stop.        

   

I couldn’t get to Mr. Peterson’s house quickly enough. He took one look at old Blue Boy and said, “Son, you’ve down a good day’s work here. Not only is this No. 50 for the old shotgun, but you’ve managed to kill an old bird that had to be the bull of the woods. I know Tom is looking down on us, and he’s awful proud.”

After I finished telling him the story, he looked at me and said, “You know, son, there were a couple of times when I got so down in the dumps I wanted to wrap my  gun around a tree and give up turkey huntin’ forever. You know what Tom always said? He’d push the brim of his hat back and say, ‘Herb, just when you think you’re about to lose the battle, you suddenly win the war. Sometimes an old Christmas gobbler will wear you down to a frazzle so bad you’ll think you’re fightin’ the Battle of Bull Run all over again. But then things turn around, and before ya’ know it, you and the Mrs. are eatin’ grilled turkey fit for a king. Don’t ever give up.’”

I almost had given up, but not quite. A few crows and a far-off gobble had saved the day. I pulled out the shotgun and handed it to Mr. Peterson.

“I want you to have this,” I said. “It’s rightly yours.”

“I’ll never use it,” he said. “My turkey hunting days are over.”

“That’s okay. You can still pull it out once in a while and think about Tom Dixon while you’re holding it.”

“Thank you, son,” he said. “I’ll always cherish it. And you never know, I might use it to keep varmints out of the garden.”

For some reason, as I drove away, the movie “Jeremiah Johnson” once again popped into my thoughts, and I recalled a few lines from the popular ballad used in that classic film.

“The way that you travel,
 is that way that you choose,
The day that you tarry,
 is the day that you lose.”

One of the saddest things about life is how quickly some men are forgotten after they leave this earth. Tom Dixon traveled far, and I doubt if he ever tarried a day in his life. The game of life may be tough to play, but he won it big time. Along the way, he taught me, and a lot of other turkey hunters, some important lessons.

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