The Game Warden

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My nineteen-seventy five turkey hunting camp was located on a logging road at the junction of the old Banner road, eight miles from a paved road, deep within the national forest. Camp setup was high on a long ridge for easy access from above to hunting areas and as not to disturb gobblers roosted at the head of hollers

A huge fire pit sits in the middle of the road surrounded by old wooden chairs borrowed from the counsel bluff church house. Just under the hill is an old pond with ample water for coffee making, washing dishes and taking our weekly bath.

Several military style olive drab tents are set up just off the roadbed. One is the cook tent, the other for supplies and our “camp cook” quarters, complete with a table for strategy meetings.

Times have changed, these are modern times, and in addition to the tents we have a 1964 Chevy Pickup truck with a big over the cab camper. We pulled the truck to camp with a jeep through deep mud holes up the eight-mile logging road.

A couple of smaller tents were on other side of the logging road for our guests. On the cook table in the center of camp is a Coleman stove and a Coleman Lantern. The lantern has a “wick” called a mantle, which make a much brighter light than the old kerosene lanterns hanging on tree limbs around camp.

We’re waiting for the arrival of our clients for a three day guided turkey hunt. My guides are seasoned hunters, Ozark veterans of many springtime battles with public ground Gobblers. Billy is my main guide, Butch is a little rough with people, but a very good guide and Tom is one of the best turkey hunters in the Ozarks. Uncle Lee guides for me on an occasion, when he is in camp, he left two nights ago to buy a case of beer and ice, and he’s still missing.

Old man winter has reluctantly released his grip after a long cold snowy winter. The hills and hollers are a display of color from the red bud, wild flowers and blooming Dogwood trees. Mud holes and ponds are full of spring peepers reciting their springtime music and morel mushrooms are pushing their sponge type heads up through the leaves from under the forest floor.

Choruses of whippoorwills begin their late evening serenade as a beautiful Ozarks sunset slowly disappears behind the western hills; I cup my hands and call like a Barred owl.

The excited response of hooting owls’ answering my call generates a throaty gobble from the roost of old Tom turkey near the split rail fence in Hop holler. Other gobblers on the roost down the valley joins in with a good night call that echo across the hollows and hills.

I quietly leave my evening listening post; I am more than satisfied with results of putting several turkeys to bed and always enjoy the peaceful walk back to camp on the faded two-track road

As our new hunters walk into the light of camp, they are wearing sandals, Bermuda shorts and are very much under the influence of alcohol.

I escort them into the tent for a private meeting at the table to discuss the rules of their guided hunt. This loud mouth guy’s first words to me were “I already called my taxidermist, we both must have a wild turkey to complete our trophy rooms, and I am paying, so I expect results”

Our new guests refuse to sit down to dinner with us; instead they fix weird looking girlie drinks with little umbrellas by the fire where they continue drinking late into the night.

Things have changed on this first morning of the hunt, we will not be hunting the roosted gobblers an easy walk from camp. The Plan for this morning is quite simple; we will hunt the roughest parts of these hills, my guides will take these egotistical big shots for a little nature walk.

After the first mornings hunt Billy returns with his hunter, this guy looks bad, he is stripped down to his tee shirt and is dragging his unloaded gun by the barrel and is about fifty yards behind his guide. Billy has an evil smile on his face as he passes me and says, “The turkeys were really tough today”. Loudmouth did not make it back for another hour, guide Tom looked quite happy and very refreshed as loud mouth crawled into his tent to go to bed. P.

Day two was also uneventful for our hunters; so the last morning of their hunt, Butch and I take our hunters north to six thousand acres of Tiff mining ground. In some of the older areas of the mining ground, hand dug test holes for Tiff from the 1930s and 1940s were everywhere.

The test holes look very much like a gravesite. To keep with the Ozarks tradition and folklore, we tell our hunters the sunken holes and rock mounds are where my relatives buried the game warden and a revenuer in 1946 or maybe 1956.

Butch’s hunter killed a bird; we were close but didn’t close the deal. On our afternoon return trip to camp, we stop along the logging road to hunt for mushrooms; our hunters are better now, much more relaxed and seem to be enjoying their trip. We walk up on a test hole, one of the hunters laughs out loud and quickly says, “I bet somebody buried the game warden there,”

After dark we are all setting around the campfire after a huge meal of fresh fried turkey breast, morel mushrooms, baked potatoes, baked beans and cathead biscuits. Everyone is full and a little tired on this last evening of the hunt as they sit and stare silently into the fire.

Billy walks away from camp and listens intently, he returns to the fire and says, “ Sounds someone walking on the road toward camp.” The guides grab their guns, quietly loading as they slip into the darkness, leaving the hunters, Marty and me in camp.

I see movement in the road as a shadowy figure walks into the faint firelight. I ask the stranger “can I help you,” he walks closer into the fire light,” Good evening” “how you guys doing.” he says. I look the guy right in the eyes and say, “why don’t you knock it off” I say, “ why don’t you just ask us for our tags, why not just drive into camp and check us, why play dress up, I know you are a game Warden”.

“Ok” he says, “ lets see some Identification and some turkey tags”. “ Whoa, whoa now, how about some I D from you first” I reply. The Man promptly takes out a badge and holds it in the fire light. Our hunters stand up quickly and dig for their drivers’ license and turkey tags and then hand them to the game warden.

I walk toward the guy and say” We don’t need any damn turkey license, why don’t you just leave and mind your own business” The stranger came right back with, “ how would you like to go to jail” I respond with. “ We aren’t doing anything wrong, you come sneaking in here acting like a big shot, go to hell”

The Game warden and I are now face to face in a heated argument with our hunters trying to separate us. The Warden walks quickly back out to the road, turns and yells for me to come out there and we will settle this, and I’m going to jail whether I like it or not.

I march toward the road as Bill and Butch come back into camp to keep the hunters back, as I step past the fire, Marty slaps a .32 cal hand gun into my hand for everyone to see. Out in the road we go at it arguing at first, then the hunters hear the unmistakable sounds of fists landing, then I yell “don’t do it, don’t’ go for your gun”, then three quick shots ring out.

The Game warden is now on the ground and flopping in the road. The hunters faces are ghost white, they’re trembling with sweat pouring from their faces while the guys calmly unload their guns, grab a shovel, whistling as they walk down the road toward the now very still game warden.

I march back into camp saying, “I didn’t want it to come to this but he asked for it” I tell Marty to help drag the guy down into the woods. Marty while sitting in his chair making a baloney sandwich calmly says, “ No way, I had to help drag the last one off.”

Loudmouth grabs me by the shirt screaming, “tell me you didn’t shoot that man.. Tell me.” “I yell, I didn’t want too, but yea I did right there” as I point to my forehead. Loudmouth runs a little further out the road and sees my guys dragging the body into the woods, all the while his buddy is frantically throwing their gear in their truck, Loudmouth looks like he may pass out, grabs his lit Coleman lantern and throws it in his truck.

The hunter’s truck roars to life, loudmouth is standing in the road trembling with his mouth open gasping for air. Butch says, “ what about those guys?” “ They seen it” Yea says Billy “they saw everything”, “Hell we’re already digging a hole anyway.” That was all it took, the truck roars off, throwing dirt and rocks with Loudmouth running like a mad man as he jumps in the bed of truck.

As the sound of the truck disappears into the distance a loud cheer roars up from camp. Laughter is deafening .Our fake play-actor Game warden is now standing next to the fire with tears running down his face, laughing so hard he is about to puke. The entire camp yells loudly as everyone raises a drink to toast our unfortunate victims of one of the cruelest practice jokes in the history of hunting camps.

Hollywood may be a place they give out awards for acting, but if there ever were a cast and crew that deserved an academy award, it was that ragged bunch of turkey hunters in the Missouri Ozarks back in 1975 in a camp on an old ridge top where the eight-mile road meets the old Banner road.