Twenty-three hours after shaking hands with Les George for the first time, we hit the rolling mesquite and cedar south of San Angelo, Texas, where the Edwards Plateau and Chihuahua Desert converge. We were looking for a place we’d never been, with little in the way of GPS coverage or places to ask directions.
The plan was to link up with two hunters: Darren Jones, whom we had never met, and Brian Cillessen, who Les didn’t know and who I hadn’t laid eyes on in 12 years. But in a world where people are more familiar with the glow of a screen than the star-scattered brilliance of a South Texas sky, no one is truly a stranger anymore. It’s a pity for anonymity, but it’s an undeniable boon to building and maintaining friendships. If it all worked out, both Les and I would head home after killing our first turkeys. Despite years of trying, neither of us had managed to kill one.
I’d been talking to all three men for a few years, thanks to mutual friends and shared interests. Brian is the owner and host of “Beyond Rubicon” on the Sportsman Channel. For him, hunting is fundamental to his family, and what it means to be an American. Darren is a lifelong outdoorsman and owner of Feral Concepts. Les is a custom knife maker, and the artist behind several production designs licensed to Kershaw, ProTech, and Spartan Blades. I’m a reawakened hunter who’s falling into outdoor writing. All that would be more than enough to get us through a few days in the woods together. But something even more fundamental than our love of wild places unifies us.
Each of us is a United States Marine, though no longer in the active ranks. Each of us served in Iraq, three of us also served in Afghanistan, and all of us served in units that only accept volunteers. We are all in the even narrower cohort who saw ground combat at close range, and found some part of ourselves there. Perhaps we lost something too, but each of us value the experiences we found at the sharpest end of human existence—where life is most illuminated—too much to wallow in regret. Perhaps those threads are what pull us to a pursuit with the potential for blood, where success may at least partially be defined in the taking of an animal.
Whatever it is, when Darren Jones learned neither Les nor I had ever killed a turkey—though not for lack of trying—he insisted we join him in Texas. When I told Brian about the plan, he decided to join us, too. He loves to hunt and tag along for a first timer’s experience, but even more I think he wanted to find himself in the company of men who know fire.
Rendezvous in Texas Turkey Country
By the time Les and I arrived at Darren’s hunting camp, we were friends. It had been a 13-hour drive to camp and, in the way of Marines long experienced at making small talk while waiting for something to happen, we easily moved to deeper topics. That didn’t stop once we arrived, either. The circle simply expanded to include Darren and Brian.
Likewise, hunting provides connections all its own, many of them found in food, and Darren’s smoker held the immediate promise of beef tenderloin. Brian announced he’d brought pronghorn, elk, and oryx meat for the coming days. But for now, we were most concerned with Meleagris gallopavo intermedia, the Rio Grande wild turkey. We talked well into the night about the mystifying nature, the challenge, and sheer maddening unpredictability of turkeys.
Mornings come early in hunting camp, especially after a late night. Darren was already tagged out in Texas and reckoned he’d only slept twenty-four hours in the preceding eight days. Brian had killed a Merriam’s in New Mexico the previous day, then driven fourteen hours to join me and Les on our hunt. That level of dedication says plenty about the bonds of service.
Meanwhile, Darren’s optimism about our chances of seeing a tom meant none of us required much more than strong coffee to get moving. We piled into Darren’s truck in the dark and set out, bouncing over ranch roads to a spot he’d scouted with us in mind.
The light came up through a leaden sky as we moved to the blind, the wind ripping across the plateau making the 46-degree morning even chillier. I wondered how much I really wanted to sit still for the next few hours, especially given my previous futile turkey hunts. Then I cast my eyes to the men around me. I realized we had fallen into a formation familiar to all of us from years of early morning walks with our guns. Reaching the blind, we settled silently under the branches of the ubiquitous cedar and mesquite trees. I smiled, despite the chill. I was exactly where I needed to be.
The Last Dance
Colonel Tom Kelly spoke an immutable truth when he wrote that turkeys have “a remarkable ability to turn arrogance into hopelessness.” Living in the Southeast means chasing Easterns in places where your shotgun’s range is limited more by terrain than technology. My first turkey hunt 20 years ago was exhilarating, but I hadn’t actually laid eyes on the tom. The bird had been drumming, spitting, and gobbling so loudly that I felt him as much as heard him.
There had been close calls since, but I’d never brought home a bird. Having hunted hard for five straight seasons without success, Les was similarly resigned. So, when the first faint gobble to answer Darren’s call was followed by the sight of a distant jake sprinting, my heart pounded as if I had been the one running all-out.
Then came a familiar hour of silence, before we moved to a tangle of thorn and cactus 400 yards away. We sat under the mid-morning overcast, Darren and Brian calling with slate and mouth calls for another hour. Then, to our north, the whisper of a gobble. I squinted at Les, unsure if I’d heard anything, unwilling to ask for fear of spooking a still possibly non-existent tom. Then he sounded off again, unmistakable this time. Louder. Closer. Then he thundered again.
The longbeard appeared in full glory 70 yards to our left, erupting with a full-throated, body shuddering gobble as he spotted our strutter decoy. I felt as if he were the manifestation of every “almost” bird I’d encountered over the years. He came in as if on a reel, fan raised, wings dragging. It was a grand entrance that brought to mind a cable television wrestler playing to the crowd, knowing he is already scripted to take an opponent’s championship belt.
Unlike the jake two hours prior, there was no elevation in my heart rate, no rapid breathing. There was only the certainty of what was to come; a story already written, merely the details left to be recorded. Darren calmly whispered to me, “As soon as you’re ready, Worth,” and I thought back to an uncle steadying me before a shot when I was just a boy in a duck blind.
Then I shouldered my 12 gauge, placed the bead just below the wattles of the tom, now less than thirty yards away, and squeezed the trigger. The tom dropped as if he had been unplugged. I sat back, suddenly exhausted, transported by a level of emotion no hunt ever engendered in me before, knowing with cold certainty that this bird and I were now as inextricably linked as early man and the animals he daubed on cave walls.
My fellow Marines reached out to pound my shoulders and welcome me to the Tenth Legion. I rose on legs I almost couldn’t feel and walked out to my first turkey. His black iridescent feathers were shockingly warm—almost hot to the touch. Darren knelt beside me, looked me in the eyes, and said, “He gave you his Last Dance, brother. That was everything he had. You got the whole show.”
We spent the evening reliving our hunt, then fell into the easy rhythm of war stories, a common language made of acronyms and dark humor and places none of us will ever see again. As much as the Rios now on their roost, this was the reason we had come here. There are things in life that must be experienced to truly be understood, and combat and turkey hunting are among them. I had crossed more than half the country to spend time with men who required no explanation of either.
The next day dawned 20 degrees warmer under misty skies threatening rain, a rarity in country that averages 19 inches a year. A 600-yard walk brought us to another improvised brush blind under cedar limbs. We sat facing east, a clearing between us and a small brush-choked hillside, with an open area stretching westward behind us. We only had this day to end Les’ five-year string of birdless hunts, and I could tell he felt doubtful. I felt guilty for having already notched one of my own tags.
Then a hen came walking into the clearing, after less than an hour of waiting. Another followed her in before both crossed the clearing and headed up the hill. A good sign, but Les and I still exchanged a look. We knew this would be the best we’d see, both of us still jaded after years of close calls.
Then, as the day before, a faint tremolo rang in the distance. Then another, closer, followed by another closer still. I started counting and tallied eight gobbles, each coming almost before the preceding one died out.
“Don’t move,” Brian hissed, as more hens came within an arms distance of our blind, so close we could hear them kicking through the rocks, though we dared not turn to look at them. I counted gobbles again. The eleventh gobble came from immediately behind us, passing through our foursome like an explosive shock wave. We sat frozen for what seemed an eternity, staring at the decoy in front of us as at least two gobblers scratched behind, close enough to hit with a rock but almost impossible to hear over the hammering of my heart.
Then the two toms entered the clearing before us, marching from our seven-o-clock, and I knew Les would not go home unblooded. The pair beelined for the strutter decoy like bar bouncers heading for a troublesome drunk, their feathers standing on end, beards arching from their chests. Les pulled on the first and dropped him, sending the second racing up the hill across from us, only to stop when Darren stopped him with his a fighting purr on his slate. Fabn on full display, the tom came back down the hill to spur his still-flopping wingman.
I waited for Les to take the double. He waited for me to take my second bird in two days. Semper Fidelis. Our shots were almost simultaneous.
“Well, strike that off the list of shit you’ve never seen,” said Darren.
Later than day, Brian killed a third bird, the final moment of a successful hunt. We celebrated with oryx and pronghorn steaks served sizzling and unadorned from a well-seasoned cast iron. It tasted as perfect as a meal can only when it’s been earned, success where the possibility of failure once loomed.
We are too often insulated from failure and its myriad lessons, the sharp edges too rounded off in our daily lives. It’s one of the things I most seek in hunting: The opportunity to fail to accomplish the task I’ve set before me. But sweeter still is the lesson that putting in the work will eventually pay off, whether in the fair-chase of game or simply in the knowledge that you stand among people who understand where you’ve been, where you are now, and why it all matters so very much.
Russell Worth Parker is a retired U.S. Marine-turned-writer. He is the editor-at-large for TomBeckbe.com and lives with his wife and daughter in Wilmington, North Carolina.