(photography by Russell Graves)

When a turkey’s smart enough and lives long enough to earn his own name, there’s only one thing you can do.

[by Jay Campbell]

HE’D BEEN SEEN ON AND OFF FOR 10 YEARS, which extended his lifespan well beyond the laws of nature. But just as belief must sometimes bend to fact, fact must sometimes bend to belief, and we all believed in Jukebox.

On our Florida lease, suggesting that Jukebox was just a turkey would have been a greater sin than questioning the Gators’prospects for a national title. I say “Would have been,” because no one had ever questioned his existence. At least not out loud.

Jukebox first revealed himself to Craig Courty in the Airplane Hammock, a dark distant circle of cypress swamp wrapped by a wall of blackberries and sawtooth palmetto taller than a man and 10 yards wide—haunted by gators, buzzards, and the wreck of a World War II trainer, an echo of war that hung in the still air like a shout. Folks saw things there, and most folks stayed away. But not Craig Courty. The Airplane Hammock may have been haunted, but it was also a haven for deer and turkey.

“You don’t hunt Jukebox,” they’d say. “He hunts you.”

The morning he met Jukebox, Craig slipped back to camp early and alone. He cooked the camp breakfast, muting his usual blare of disco music. His morning bracer stayed corked. Folks drifted in from the woods and quietly took their seats, drawn by his hot bacon biscuits but silenced by his dark mood.

Finally he said, “I saw Him, boys.”

He pushed his eggs across the plate and stared at his fork.

“I was backed up to a cypress, covered so good I couldn’t see my own feet. I gave one little cackle . . .

He must have slipped up behind me in the fog.”

He paused, eyes wide behind Coke-bottle glasses, and whispered. “I never heard him coming, but I felt his footsteps.”

Forks froze in midshovel.

“I cut my eyes around and almost swallowed my call. I had to look up to see him.”

Craig is six foot three, and seems taller sitting down. Forks settled onto plates.

“At first I thought it was a cow. His beard was as long as a calf ’s tail, thick as a broom.”

Mouths hung open.

“His wattles popped off his neck like Fourth of July balloons.” Craig’s voice rose, his hands spread wide. “And when the sun lit him, he glowed like Old Glory.”

Craig Courty is patriotic to a fault, and comparing a bird’s neck to the American flag just wasn’t done. Folks eyed each other nervously.

Craig’s shoulders slumped. “Boys, he looked through me like he could see my soul. I never even raised my gun.” He sighed and shook his head. “Been hunting here since I was nine, and I’ve never seen— never even heard of anything like him. That bird was as big and bright as a . . . a danged Jukebox!”

And there it was. Everyone knew Craig wouldn’t hesitate to sidestep a fact if it might inconvenience a story. But whether this turkey was real or not didn’t matter, because Craig Courty believed he was real, and that counted for a great deal on our ranch.

“Jukebox,” the members said. And so it began.

That night, folks yawned and stretched and made excuses to retire early, generally suggesting they might wander off in the morning to hunt the oak bottoms to the north or the food plots to the west. But before dawn, the road to the Hammock was gridlocked with swamp buggies and Jeeps. As the sun rose, 15 painted faces peeked from 15 blinds, each searching for Jukebox.

On cue, his gobbles exploded in strings that grew louder and closer until he stormed the hammock at first light. He craned his massive neck from side to side, eyeballing every hunter in his hide. He hurled challenges. He blocked the sun and shook the earth. He was blinding blue and crimson in one moment, ghostly gray and invisible in the next.

Jukebox was such a showcase of overwhelming extravagance that everyone knew Craig Courty’s gift for exaggeration had failed him for the first time in his life.

Not one of those hunters ever raised a gun.

JUKEBOX SHOWED AGAIN THAT YEAR, the members said, and for years thereafter. And those few who crossed him were marked forever. “You don’t hunt Jukebox,” they’d say. “He hunts you.”

They’d linger over breakfast, speculating about the other toms he’d vanquished, the hens he’d seeded. They’d describe him using language men reserve for centerfolds and monster trucks. They’d claim he knew a man’s thoughts before he could act. That he froze men senseless with a stare. In 10 years, no one ever fired a shot.