Lord of the Flock

I’d stopped at the farmer’s place to do a little picking. The old timer didn’t think he had anything I’d be interested in, but he agreed to let me look in his barn, all the same. Truth is, I think he was just glad to have some company. Turned out he was right, though. There wasn’t anything in the barn that caught my eye. Nothing except for the turkey fans and the deer antlers that lined the walls. Trophy rooms are typically measured by their quality, but the impressive thing about this collection was its sheer quantity. There were two or three dozen deer racks, but they were far outnumbered by the turkey fans. There had to be a hundred of them. 

The old man had obviously been a hunter, and a good one, too. When I asked him about it, though, he immediately denied it. In fact, he was shaking his head no before I even finished asking the question. He slammed the barn door shut and stomped back across the yard toward the house. I started to apologize for upsetting him but I didn’t want to make things worse so I just slid in behind the wheel of my pickup. I was pulling out of his driveway when I noticed him staring at me from the porch. I rolled my window down.

“Come in, son, and have a glass of sweet tea. Maybe I’ll tell you a story.”

I was halfway through my third glass when he finally quit fiddling with the strap on his overalls, cleared his throat and started talking.

“I was made for the outdoors, son, and I hunted everything the law would let me. If you was to make me choose just one critter to chase, though, it’d be Old Tom Turkey. I loved everything about turkey hunting – the dewey mornings, the sunshiny afternoons, every bit of it. I hunted turkey in nearly every state of this great country of ours. I killed Merriam’s in the mountains and Rios in the midwest. I made at least a dozen trips to Florida for the Osceola, and of course I took my season limit of Easterns here at home, year after year. I loved the feel of . . . . .”

There was a smile playing at the corner of his lips as he reminisced, and I began to wonder if the old man might have one more hunt in him, thinking that maybe I could help him get set up on one last bird.

“. . . . . but I quit hunting twenty years ago.”

His words snapped me back to the conversation at hand.

“What? Why? Why would you quit hunting?”

The old man stared at his hands until the ice in my glass shifted and broke the silence. He shook himself and said:

“The first time I ever heard him gobble I shouldered my shotgun, sure I was about to get a shot. When the bird failed to show himself, I stood up to see where he’d slipped off to and was afforded my first glance at the Lord of the Flock. To my surprise, the bird was strutting a half mile away, surrounded by his harem of hens.”

The old man was messing with me. He had to be. Any minute now, he’d slap the table and start laughing, letting me know that he was just pulling my leg. Any minute now. But then he continued.

“Rumors of his existence were almost as rare as sightings, and because the few that did catch a glimpse of him were afraid to admit it lest they be counted crazy, most men lived in the bliss of ignorance. But I found enough sign in the woods every year to assure me that the Lord of the Flock was alive and well and still ruling with an iron spur. What folks probably took for a buck’s rub scarred up the same old, giant cottonwood every spring, long after antlers had been shed, and I once stumbled upon a dusting bowl the size of a watershed and worn clear down to the bedrock.”

I went from thinking the old man was messing with me to thinking that he’d lost his marbles. Surely he didn’t actually believe the story he was telling me?

“On my last morning in the woods as a turkey hunter, I was set up on some birds I had roosted the night before. Daylight was still coming on when shadows started to hit the field in front of me, already pecking and preening. All at once, though, they fell to their knees and bowed their heads. Then they folded their wings and stretched out their necks, and every hair on my neck stood up. I felt something coming then. Something powerful.”

The air in the room had gone completely still, and I realized I was holding my breath.

“I figured it was him, and sure enough I was right, but when he strutted into view I still couldn’t believe what I was saw. Even my imagination struggled to make sense of it. The bird, if the Lord could be called a bird, was sized proportionally according to his kind, even if he was enormous. But his species couldn’t have been determined. He had the Merriam’s snowy fan, the Eastern turkey’s heavy breast, and the Rio Grande’s bronze and turquoise sheen. His spurs were like the pictures I’d seen of the Ocellated turkey down in Mexico, each one razor sharp and every bit of a yard long. He was drumming, and the noise had the same effect on me an African war drum would have. It rattled every tooth in my head; even shook one loose. The Lord’s snood swung back and forth from his beak like an executioner’s blade, and a massive beard waterfalled from his chest. There was what looked to be bits of bone and smoking wick woven into its strands. Had I been standing upright, he still would’ve had to crane his neck and stoop his head to look me in the eye. Scenes of his life’s battles were painted across his tail fan – one of a mountain lion impaled upon his spur and another of a bobcat in his beak. He was to his kind as the Great White is to the goldfish. Except for those eyes. Even on an exaggerated scale, his eyes still weren’t the beady eyes of birds. They were ancient and knowing, and they had a depth to them that made a man rethink all he knew to be true about the world around him.”

“When those eyes glanced my direction, the Lord of the Flock gobbled once and the gale force of it blew every leaf from the twisted oak I was braced up against, leaving me feeling naked and exposed. Then he snatched up the hard plastic decoy I’d planted in the field edge and crumpled it up like a sheet of aluminum foil. My scattergun clattered to the ground, the strength gone from my hands. It wasn’t that I couldn’t have made the shot; he was so big I couldn’t have missed. It was knowing that my 12 bore wouldn’t do a lick of good ‘cept make him mad because the minute I opened my eyes against the blast of that gobble I saw another scene, one I’d missed earlier. There, across the secondary feathers of his tail fan was the image that quailed my courage – the Lord of the Flock, in all his glory, standing on top of the broken body of a brave but foolish hunter, thundering his gobble to the sky. At the sight, I joined the jakes and hens in the field. I knelt down and bowed my head, begging his mercy and paying my proper respects to the Lord of the Flock.”

“And I haven’t hunted since.”

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