Two brothers are about as close as close gets, until, for whatever reason, they aren’t.
[by Amy Boyles]
STAN FLINCHED AS BRIARS DUG INTO HIS FLESH, new punctures bleeding over the old. Movement flickered in the holler. He pushed aside a thorny branch. Beyond the black feathered hens, scratching or nestling on the ground, lumbered a Jake. Its adolescent eye didn’t see the long-bearded tom at the edge of the holler, pecking the ground for lunch. But the tom heard the jake’s bronze wingtips graze across the dirt as he strutted. They must’ve been 30 yards from each other, and if the tom had a shotgun, he could’ve blown the Jake into tomorrow.
Instead, the boss charged, wings tucked into his sides and spurs ready to gouge the intruder’s head. The young bird turned and ran, exiting the flock before he even had a chance to browse the goods.
Stan dropped his binoculars. The sky streamed ribbons of blue and fuchsia. The flock would roost soon. The dawn would bleed similar shades in the morning, when he returned. They’d be exactly where he left them, giving Stan the necessary edge. Intercept the tom before he got henned up, and Stan would add a pair of spurs to his trophy necklace.
His cell rang as soon as he shimmied out from under the thicket.“Hey, man, you going turkey hunting tomorrow?” Ben said.
Tomorrow was opening day. Was that a trick question?
“Yeah, I’m going.”
“Is it okay if I come with you?”
“Can you pick me up?”
Stan wasn’t sure what Ben spent his money on, but it surely wasn’t gas.
“I’m gonna get up early.” So be up and ready.
“I’ll be there by three thirty.”
“Damn, that is early. Can’t we make it four?”
“Three thirty. You want to be down there before them hens set up with a gobbler.”
“Ain’t none of them hens up at four.”
“We got to be ready so none of ’em see us, Ben.”
Stan paused, wanting his next words to sink deeply. “You don’t have to go.”
The response was quick. “No, I’ll go.”
FOR YEARS STAN HUNTED TURKEYS BY HIMSELF, his brother and father interested mostly in trophy bucks. Stan knew better. You spent more time marinating the gaminess out of a big buck than eating it. On the other hand, the meat off a doe was smooth, holding just enough wildness so you knew it wasn’t factory raised.
Does were also more appreciated by Trish, who defrosted a vacuum-sealed pack from the deep freeze almost every other night. If Stan shot nothing but bucks, she’d gripe all year. A happy wife was worth sacrificing a trophy here and there.
When he got home, Stan pulled a rag from his gun box and swabbed the bore of his shotgun. His vest was next: mouth calls, slate, glass, and striker, all in their pouches.
In the years Stan was busy teaching himself the ways of turkeys, Ben was busy racking up possession charges.
The striker’s tip was worn from years of scratching, each jagged movement making a single cluck. On its own, the sound was nothing more than a high-pitched grating, but the combination created a symphony a gobbler couldn’t tell from a real hen. Mastering calls took time, the striker held gently, fingers wrapped just so. That knowledge wasn’t got in an hour or even a day. So when the flatbed rolled onto the red clay the next morning, their roles were clear: Stan would call and Ben would shoot. He set his brother on the low side of a hill, positioning himself down and to the left.
In the years Stan was busy teaching himself the ways of turkeys, Ben was busy racking up possession charges. For every night in jail there was a morning spent at home eating biscuits and gravy. Their parents constantly bailed Ben out, while Stan tried to convince them to let him rot. That’s the only way he’ll ever learn. They didn’t listen.
It was painful watching his parents’ hair turn prematurely gray while Ben inked barbed-wire tattoos across his chest. Still, things were different now. Ben had served his time, and was first in line for church every Sunday.
Stan handed off a face mask and flattened himself, laying his 12-gauge softly on the ground. Ben crouched beside him, gun at the ready. As dawn peeked between the pines, Stan pulled out the glass, called quick clucks into the woods. His were the first sounds of morning.
The reply—gahhhhble—lifted from the trees. The voice was good, strong.
“Aim for the head. And don’t forget: they can hear you think and watch you change your mind.” Ben nodded.
Please don’t let him miss. Ben wasn’t the best shot, having emptied eight rounds at a 16-point buck a few months earlier before the ninth finally ended its life.
Stan stowed the glass and took out a mouth call, chewing around the plastic, working his saliva. It chopped the air, loud and sharp. The gobbler fired off fast in response. Hairs on the back of his neck ignited. The bird was closing fast.
Ben raised his gun. Stan gave another call.
Off to the right and a little farther off came the low sound of another tom. Barrel raised, Ben looked ready. Both birds could land at the far edge of the tip and not see his brother, but if they walked too far and topped the hill, he’d be made before he could shoot. The tom strode to the top of the ridge. Stan’s mesh mask had ridden up, cutting off his line of sight. Even so, he could make out the swollen head and puffed chest darting across the peak and running for Ben, desperate for a piece of hen. Ben fl inched, jerking the shotgun back. The tom bounced in the air as if to fl y off. By the time it landed, Stan grabbed his gun, lifted, and fired.
The second tom didn’t see the first as it ran across the ridge. This time, Stan didn’t look to Ben to deliver any shots and slapped the trigger. The bird flopped for a few seconds and then fell.
“You ain’t supposed to kill two,” Ben said.
Stan pressed his lips together. “I know I ain’t supposed to, and I wouldn’t have if you’d shot that first one. Why didn’t you kill it?”
Ben wiped his thighs. “You didn’t say it was gonna fly at me like that.”
He sighed. “You gotta be ready for ’em. Come on, we’ll clean ’em up.”
Ben pulled his mask around his neck. “Yeah, when I seen that first one coming, about scared me to death. I didn’t know what to do.”
Stan mustered a laugh. “It’s a trip. Like I told you before, ain’t nothing like it.”
“You didn’t tell me it was gonna fly in like that.”
Stan said “Yep,” and thought, Hurry the hell up before a ranger sees us.
“Because I was thinking they’d be like a deer, that we’d see it from far off, but that sumbitch running in about scared the hell out of me.”
“Sucker run fast, too. My heart’s still pounding. You see how fast he came in?”
“Scared me to death.” Ben grinned lopsidedly, his tiny teeth smeared with the brown of chew.
“Well, good thing you made it.”
“Yeah. Pop’s gonna be jealous he didn’t come.”
After they cleaned the birds, Stan took the boss tom’s breasts and gave the other to Ben to take home to Mom and Pop. On the ride home, Ben kept going over the story, amazed at how the bird flew in, astounded Stan never warned him they’d come in like that. With each retelling his grin got bigger and bigger, the childlike happiness growing like an aura. Stan nodded and yepped as they drove on, allowing Ben to throw a layer of fill into the ravine that still stood between them.
Trish fried up part of the breast that night, oohing and aahing over its flavor. The next night they finished it off in a pie, butter and carrots swirling between flaky crust.