It’s almost hunting season so Jess thought this an appropriate time to share this fun story.
I was a hunting guide for several seasons in south eastern Montana as a young man. In those days, between eighty and ninety hunters came through Doonan Gulch Outfitters every fall from all over the nation. Even some from other countries, like Canada (if that counts), Germany, Australia, even North Dakota… All spoke English in one form or another, though some had such thick accents I sometimes wondered. The rural hill country of Virginia in particular can produce a drawl so unique a careful ear might dare to estimate the proximity of the drawler’s origin. Vowels get stretched and bent mercilessly with inflection, especially when the speaker is excited (or drunk), and certain words like “that” or “don’t” seem to get stamped into a sentence as if to hold it all down. In my humble opinion, no one can pull off using words like “yonder” with more confidence than a rural Virginian.
I happened to be at the ranch one afternoon when three men and a boy of about thirteen showed up several hours earlier than expected. I didn’t notice the newcomers’ license plate when they pulled in, but I was just sure they must be from Virginia before we were done shaking hands. They’d driven their four door pick-up straight through from near Roanoke in good time for their hunt, and they looked beat! Oh, they were excited to finally be there sure enough, but they were wearin’ that numb, parts of me are draggin’ I didn’t even know I had look about them. Russ was still out with hunters, and I knew Carol had already swapped the linens and tidied up the bunkhouse they’d be staying in, so I led the way. As they each found a bunk, indifferent to who went where, I told them that supper would be shortly after sunset. I lingered in the doorway as they settled to remind them that breakfast was at five a.m. sharp and, “Carol means it.” I wasn’t sure why I’d made such a point to say so. I figured they’d just snooze for a few hours until all the other hunters came in making the inevitable ruckus over the day’s adventures. Surely that would rouse them. Then we’d have a chance to get to know one another over supper and make plans for the next day while we ate… but no one saw them again until breakfast.
I knew these guys would be mine to guide after breakfast, so I pulled a chair up next to them while they generously heaped their plates. Apparently they were hungry. Somehow Carol always managed to prepare an amazing feast by this hour, and these boys weren’t bashful about taking advantage. She was fairly renowned for her cooking and was used to hearing praise for it. So much so, Russ liked to tell folks the reason a majority of the clientele at Doonan Gulch were repeat hunters wasn’t for the hunting. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you if it was exaggeration for him to say so. These Virginians thanked Carol profusely for the fine viddles every time she brought another heaping platter to the table. Somehow they didn’t gush about it, they were simply stating it as a fact. I noticed that their acknowledgement of her skills in the kitchen seemed to carry a rare sincerity that touched Carol a little more than most.
I learned that Jim was Smokey’s dad, Grandpa was Jim’s dad, and Scott had been Jim’s best friend since childhood. Hunting back home for them was more concerned with turkey season than deer. Pressure on the whitetail there was so great, the way they told it, the likelihood that even the most diligent hunter having a chance to shoot a legal buck sounded pretty remote. Of course this didn’t discourage them from trying every year. By the time I learned that they’d all been saving many years for this trip, the platters mounded up with Carols’ wonderfulness came around again, and once again they filled their plates. They all kept grinning so big it looked painful.
I could go on at considerable length over Carols cooking, especially over the broiled cubes of sharp-tailed grouse breast wrapped in bacon… but I probably shouldn’t… though I will confess that my approach to a platter full of these delectable little things was that of a heroin addict scrambling for a fix. Shameful, I know, but… Well okay,… needless to say their creation became top secret from me until all of the hunters had at least had a taste. And now that my mouth is watering from the remembrance of it, I should leave off as I… I… Oh my… The aroma! That particularly special, exceptionally enticing smell that always managed to encourage me to draw massive gulps of that intoxicating scent through my nose. A smell that never failed to inspire a desperate urgency to discover the source of its emanation… Or how the cube of dark, succulent meat, so tender it seemed nearly to melt under the gentle crunch of the perfectly seared bacon wrapper even before the toothpick could be fully drawn away allowing for that first, achingly anticipated bite. Always, and before the warm satisfaction of complete culinary exhilaration had a chance to drift away, my eyes were anxiously seeking the next delightful bite with such needful urgency that all of my other senses were greatly dulled… regrettably at times when some measure of propriety should have been adhered to.
Right!… And now, despite the fact that this retelling of a fun adventure from so long ago remains unfinished, I’m afraid I must go and find Grace to see what amazing recipe she’s working on for next weeks post. Yes… I certainly do have every intention of stealing away some hopefully unmissed morsel or tidbit, even at the risk of burning my mouth. Maybe she’s concocting another dish with meat? One with a lot of meat? A lot of meat with bacon! Or maybe just BACON! Oh yeah…
After breakfast Jim, Smokey, Grandpa, Scott, and I loaded our gear and selves into the bionic banana. The bionic banana was a venerable old 1978, four door Dodge pickup, and she was part of the family. A bare bones, slab-sided, once upon a time fleet truck from the Bureau of Land Management that somehow made looking a little dumpy kind of cool. She wore white spoke wheels, white bumpers, and a white grill guard… but the rest of her was very, very yellow!
She creaked and groaned a bit in rough terrain, but she always started, never smoked, and only dripped a little, though we never talked about that last part. I don’t remember how many bullet holes the poor old girl had in her, but the scars did encourage greater discretion where gun control was concerned with the hunters. Okay… we did have to tell the hunters to slam the sagging doors with clenched teeth and intention for them to latch, but no one seemed to mind. When the need for a stealthy approach toward critters came up, everyone was always told to leave the doors open. Slamming them shut made the cab roof ring like a bell which could be heard for miles!
On the dash of the bionic banana was a box call that apparently lived there. To the best of my knowledge I never knew why, but it was always there sure enough. Its purposeful design was to attract turkey gobblers. Smokey found this thing and asked me what it was. Picture a small box made of hardwood, an inch and a half wide by six inches long. The paddle on top moved freely over the opening, and with a gentle touch and a fair bit of practice could be rubbed across the sides of the box to create a sound remarkably similar to the cluck or purr of a turkey hen. In the hands of a novice, it can sound like… like… well… just imagine an overzealous, but well intended youth tragically deaf to tone practicing the violin. I never should have shown Smokey how it worked. He just wouldn’t leave the dang thing alone!
Those Virginia boys had more fun than most that came to Doonan Gulch. And that really is saying something. Their spirits remained high, despite the long hours in weather more extreme than anything they were accustomed to. The way the mud built up on the bottom of their boots to the extent that they became noticeably taller somehow became a topic of conversation many times. All were in agreement that there surely must be some useful industrial application for the stuff. The endless ribbing that I so often got entangled in could be brutal, but never disrespectful, and almost always hilarious. I’d spent a lot of time traveling with hunters in silence. That certainly wasn’t the case with these guys. Thankfully the box call was repeatedly taken away from Smokey as we traveled… many, many times! Although I would never have admitted it then, he actually began to show promise with the thing by the end of their trip.
They all filled their mule deer tags with a day to spare. Each shot an impressive buck, even by Montana standards. Well… okay. Grandpas’ buck was modest at best, but he hadn’t come there for a prize.
In the end they all happily claimed their mounts would be considered exceptional trophies back home, and certainly the envy of all their friends and family. Incredibly, even the buck Grandpa shot was respectable by their standards. As a guide I thought this was pretty cool, but for whatever reason, I somehow recognized that the physical evidence of this hunting trip could never begin to describe the experience these men would take home with them.
The night before their last day I was asked to go and find the Virginians for supper as they seemed to have gone missing. I found them in the cold room where we hung the meat and stored the heads. All four were admiring not only their own, but the other hunters bucks as well. The cold room was well lit, and I could see and hear them quite well through the screen door as I approached through the dark. None of them noticed my approach from beyond the light, so ignoring the cold, I stayed outside a few minutes to witness these men enjoying their success. They weren’t hoopin’ or hollerin’, or trying to make plastic solo cups of whiskey clink together with boisterous cheer. They weren’t clapping each other on the back, or comparing which was the better animal, or even who had made the best shot to take their respective animals down. No… Oddly, they were reserved… speaking softly to each other in that heavy drawl everyone noticed but them. The room seemed filled with a sense of awe and quiet respect. They had finally done it. They came here from so far away, and successfully hunted these magnificent animals. A dream they had shared for such a long time had finally been fulfilled, and with the satisfaction of it… they seemed now to need a bit of closure.
We all walked back to the lodge together kinda slow, but full of a warm, comfortable cheer… jokingly hoping without any real doubt that some of Carols’ fine fixins would still be of the table. They made no mention that they had a whole day left to hunt, but I knew each of them had a turkey tag yet to fill. As we came under the porch light in front of the lodge I intentionally lagged behind just a bit to gain their attention. I asked the question, “So… you fella’s up for some turkey huntin’ tomorrow?” The gentle, satisfied reflection they’d carried across the parking yard from the barn disappeared. As their eyes lit up and shoulders squared, I felt nearly smothered with the colorful words and drawling inflection that poured out of them. What I meant to point out to them with my question was that there was more hunting yet to do, but for these boys it became “We ain’t heard no fat lady!!!”
The next morning I took them down Pumpkin creek just a little ways past Sonnette and shut the bananas’ motor off. This particular ravine was a reliable turkey hole with steep sides covered heavily with thick pine and brush. The county road closely followed it’s decent as it continued on, with twists and turns for near a mile before it leveled off. This was turkey heaven, and these boys only had one more day to play.
Because these birds tend to be fairly noisy critters, I asked everyone to leave the doors open on the banana as we stepped out so we might have a chance to hear them without being noticed. We listened for their scratching and rusting through the woods, a cluck fro the hens, or perhaps with luck, a gobble! We heard nothing.
In truth, it really isn’t that hard to get a gobbler to gobble, and as the long minutes passed without a sound I was beginning to feel tempted to test that theory. Simply create a loud noise, any noise, and most likely any gobbler within earshot would respond. I was sure some birds must be around here somewhere, and with a group of men huffing the breath of anxious air everyone seemed always to breath on the last day of their hunt, the delicate weave of temperance I sometimes struggle to acknowledge began to unravel. By then Smokey was pestering us anyway. In brief, anxious whispers that hung around our heads on the cold, early morning air, he communicated his hopeful intentions. He wanted to use the box call he’d been practicing so incessantly on, but I pointed out that if we couldn’t hear the turkeys, they most likely wouldn’t be able to hear the box call. Hoping to consume some of the fidgety he wore, and frankly more than half as a lark if I’m honest, I told him to go slam a door closed on the banana. His blank look said, “What?” Smokeys’ father stood directly behind him facing me, and by the twinkle I saw in his eye he knew what I was playing at. I leaned into Smokey with absolute authority as I pointed at the bionic banana, and with a low, gentle voice said, “Just one door, mind you.”
Bingo! It worked! A gobble came from deep within the ravine, and within moments we all agreed on how to sneak up on the little buggers hoping for an ambush. Some twenty minutes later we were crouching under some heavy brush as a large flock of turkeys wandered into sight. The idea was for Smokey to take the first shot, followed immediately by the other three men. It went quite well, except for the part tat didn’t. Best friend Scott didn’t pull the trigger. Where Smokey, Jim, and Grandpa each bagged a bird, Scott, knowing how likely it was that more than one bird might be killed in such an excited circumstance was privately prepared to volunteer his tag toward an inadvertent kill. I had to admit, he wasn’t wrong to think that way. I’d been there many times before, and carried a tag of my own for just such a predicament. It can be hard to stay cool and patient at the climax of a hunt, and even a fully choked twelve gauge throws a generous pattern. In this instance however, these two men and a boy knew what they were doing, and singled out their birds with careful aim. Three birds went down without harm to any other. On the way back up the breath stealing slope to the truck, the annoyance from the three shooters toward Scott for the generous gesture quickly ran its course. Between gulps of air, I suggested that I might know where the panicked flock was probably headed.
By the time we got back to where the bionic banana was still patiently waiting for someone to close her other three doors, the plan to fill Scotts’ tag had already solidified. We threw the three birds in the bed and piled in. I figured those turkeys had ran several hundred yards downhill after our disruption before stopping to wonder why they were running. They’re not overly bright critters after all. So away we raced down the county road some fair ways hoping to head them off and give Scott a chance at redemption.
I parked the banana under a very large, lonely pine tree near the edge of the road that was fairly removed from the dense forest that marked the shoulder of the ravine. Scott and I left Smokey, Jim, and Grandpa with the truck and bailed into the scrub aiming to meet the flock coming downhill. While I was intent on helping Scott fill his tag, fully expecting it would be the coup-de-grau for this group of Virginians trip, I couldn’t help but notice Scotts’ demeanor. The man seemed filled with a reserved passiveness. Not that he was indifferent to the hunt. Not at all. Just a contented acceptance of what was. Any suggestion I may have had on what next to do he seemed already to be doing. When to to pause and listen, how to keep our presence in the woods small by using the under story to hide as we moved along, skirting the dappled sun falling through the canopy, and he seemed to understand my unsaid insistence that we stay head of our scent lazily drifting downhill in the airless ravine. Shortly, I began to understand that Scott was an accomplished hunter in his own right, and my respect for him grew still more when I considered what he had done at the top of the ravine. After all, he’d spent good money long saved to be on this trip with his friends.
Scott and I had carefully hunted uphill from the banana a respectable ways when we both heard a turkey cluck several times. He reached out to touch my shoulder with excited eyes while, gratefully I noted, keeping his barrel pointed toward the ground. Excited men don’t always remember not to point their barrel at what they’re looking at… even if it’s me! Rifles aren’t so much a problem, it always seems to be the shotguns. What is it about shotguns? Anyway… the cluck came again, this time with a couple purrs! Scott quietly pointed in the direction of the sound. I knew this ravine, and I knew exactly where I’d left the bionic banana. I didn’t even try to hide the smile on my face. I said, “Oh,ho,ho! That’s a turkey alright! Wanna’ have some fun?” The unsure grin on Scotts’ face said he hadn’t yet figured out what I was suggesting, but he followed along as I began to scramble back up the slope towards the banana.
We crept through the brush near the edge of the road until we had a clear view of the bionic banana. Grandpa was snoozing in the back seat, and Jim and Smokey had found a comfy spot in the sun leaning against the trunk of the big pine tree. They were facing the direction Scott and I had disappeared, so the angle we found them from was far to the right of their interest… and best of all, easily less than a hundred yards away.
Just as I’d suspected, Smokey was holding the box call. I was about to point this detail out to Scott when Smokey raised the box and coaxed several fairly convincing hen clucks from it. Scott, suddenly aware of the situation, cradled his shotgun and shifted his weight to stand up. I expected he meant to boldly walk the distance seperating us from the banana and reprimand the two for such an unkind deception, but I caught his shoulder and pressed my forefinger to my lips to indicate a hush. Leaning close with a whisper and raising a pointed finger, I asked if he could puut a round into the the top of that big pine tree… His pause was long enough for me to reconsider the prank. I’d been sure of the more than justified fun that could be had if Scott were willing, but now… A long moment passed before Scott’s eyes finally went ablaze with understanding, and a terrible grin of mischeif I’ll never forget filled his face…
Smokey made the box call cluck a few more times before I heard the small metallic snick that told me Scott had taken the safety off his shotgun. As he slowly raised the barrel high to aim at the top of the pine tree I stuck my fingers in my ears. He fired once, and I watched the high boughs shutter as cones, needles, and small branches fell on the resting hunters below. If you’ve ever been on the wrong end of a muzzle blast you know it’s much louder than it is for the shooter. As close as we were, the sound of the blast must have been incredible. I watched both Jim and Smokeys’ butts lift off the ground at least a foot in surprise, and I unplugged my ears just in time to hear Jim excitedly tell his son that thick Virginia accent, “Boy! You best put that thang awaay!!!”
It’s been well over twenty years, and I can still hear Jim hollerin’ at Smokey to put that thang awaay… Everyone laughed a lot at supper that night, and for years to come at Doonan Gulch, new hunters heard the story of Smokey and the box call. Scott had been the quiet one of the group. He never did get a turkey that day. The morning after, I hat time to shake hands with each of these men as they loaded up for the long drive home. All of them had a hint of a smile on their face, maybe a little sad, but a look of satisfaction for sure. I recognized it as evidence of a fine adventure full of good tales to be carried home and re-told for years to come. As for Scott however… well… there was a certain little something in his eyes I felt sure he would quietly keep to himself awhile longer than the rest of his companions. Perhaps something to savor until one of those perfect moments presented itself, as perfect moments tent to do.