Is there any better way to get in the mood for Thanksgiving than enjoying a FREE seasonal tale? And this one comes with a happy ending—depending on your point of view, of course. Enjoy!
“Come on, Manse,” Earlington said. “You gotta pick up the pace if we’re gonna get in and out before nightfall.”
They were on a high, forested hump of rock. Earlington didn’t know if it was a big hill or a small mountain, and he really didn’t give a shit. Below him to the east was Highway 101, and Lake Mendocino.
They’d been chasing a wild turkey for almost an hour now.
Earlington was pissed, and he’d given up trying to hide it.
He’d gotten a call from Manse a few days ago. They both worked on the loading dock at the Wal-Mart in Ukiah. They’d had a few beers now and then, but they weren’t buddies.
He found out later Manse had been calling around, looking for a hunting partner.
“There’s wild turkeys up there,” Manse had said.
“Yeah,” Earlington had replied, “If you got a permit. You got a permit, Manse?”
“No. But I know a guy who bagged a few, last weekend up in the hills. Up in the woods. West of the lake, on the other side of 101.”
“You can’t fucking just—”
“This guy told me where to go,” Manse had said.
Earlington had stifled a laugh. Manse had been whispering.
“I got the exact directions and everything. We roll in, bag two birds, and roll out.”
“So what d’ya need me for, Manse?”
“Well . . . my truck’s in the shop.”
And here they were. They had both called in sick that morning, the day before Thanksgiving. Earlington’s old Cherokee had taken them up into the hills, northwest of Ukiah, following a map Manse had drawn on the back of his Pacific Gas & Electric bill.
Earlington knew he blew it by ignoring common sense the moment they got out of the truck, parked on an incline at the end of a path in the woods. Manse had unzipped his rifle case and pulled out a nice Remington twelve gauge pump. Earlington had started loading his own Beretta and asked Manse about his choke.
Manse had shrugged and said, “What’s a choke?”
Earlington should have shut things down right there . . . but damn, it would be something to bag a wild turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.
“You don’t know what a fuckin choke is?” Earlington had held the end of his shotgun under Manse’s nose. “A choke tube is what stops you from shredding a bird. It concentrates the shot pattern, so you can take off a turkey’s head. Otherwise you’ll be picking shot out of the fuckin thing ‘til doomsday.”
Manse had gotten bent out of shape.
Like Earlington gave a shit.
They had set out uphill through the woods. They spent hours scrambling over fallen trees and climbing up and down the rocky terrain, and then they came across two wild turkeys.
Earlington didn’t know squat about turkeys, but he figured this was a mated pair, because one was bigger and colorful and the other one was smaller, with comparatively dull plumage. A hen and a . . . what the hell was the male called? A tom?
He’d hunkered down and whispered to Manse.
“Let’s take a moment to get settled here. If we’re lucky we can take out both birds at the same—”
Manse’s Remington fired less than a foot from Earlington’s right ear.
The female turkey exploded.
Manse had cheered, racking another shell into the chamber, the sound of the gun blast and his bull roar driving the tom into fitful leaps and bounds as it ran for cover.
Earlington had waited for the ringing in his ear to subside, hoping he hadn’t suffered any permanent damage. He’d watched Manse run forward and proudly hold up a shredded red and black mess by one twisted foot.
“I got one,” Manse had said, sporting a goofy grin.
Earlington had approached him, fighting down the urge to smack the man in the mouth with the butt of his gun.
“You fuckin moron,” he’d said. “You coulda deafened me. You never shoot that close to someone. The fuck is wrong with you?”
Manse had dropped the ruined bird. He looked around and said, “Jeez, I guess the other one booked.”
“No shit,” Earlington had replied, picking up the expended shell from Manse’s gun. “You crazy fuck. Double-ought nickel-plated? We’re hunting turkeys, not fuckin elephants.”
“Screw you,” Manse had said defensively. “I wanted to be sure I got it.”
Earlington had nudged the mess on the ground with the toe of his boot. “Oh, you got it, all right.”
They had set out after the fleeing tom. Manse had pissed and moaned, saying they had what they came for. Earlington had told him the shredded bird wasn’t worth shit, and he was pretty sure he could bag the tom with his copper-plated turkey loads, a mix of 4 and 6 shot.
Long, silent hours passed as the men did little more than grunt and curse and gesture at each other. They would get close to the tom, and the big turkey would burst out of the undergrowth, fluttering and leaping away in bounds that covered a lot more ground than Earlington would ever have expected.
He figured Manse must have clipped one of its wings, because he was certain wild turkeys could fly.
He was surprised by how quiet the wild turkey was. He’d seen domestic birds before, huge, awkward monstrosities lumbering around and gobbling mindlessly to each other. The big tom was different. It was quiet, knowing when to hide, and when to run.
When he finally blew the turkey’s head off, Earlington was gonna do it quick and clean. The bird deserved that much respect. More respect than Manse, anyway.
“Come on for fuck sake.”
As he approached Earlington, Manse was puffing like he had a two-pack-a-day habit, his face slick with sweat. His chest was heaving, and he was making a lot of noise.
“Ever hear of stealth, Manse?”
“Hey, fuck you, alright?”
Earlington looked up. The trees were still thick and close here, but they thinned out near the gray ridge of rock at the top of the hill they were on. There was enough green brush that the turkey was well-hidden. They were on a steep grade. Earlington didn’t like the thought of the long walk back to his truck empty-handed. It was quiet up here. He could smell pine needles, and the earthy mulch of the forest floor, and wood smoke from a distant fireplace.
He looked back and down. Manse was still a few yards below him.
Earlington heard a rustling in the brush just ahead of him.
Manse stepped on a twig and cursed when it snapped.
The turkey appeared a few feet away, running to the top of the bare ridge of rock. Earlington was amazed at how fast the bugger could run. It hesitated, looking over its shoulder at the men and turning back to whatever was down the other side of the hill.
“Gotcha,” Earlington said. He looked back, and whatever he was going to say to Manse evaporated in a fit of unease.
Manse was pointing his shotgun up the hill, at the turkey. Earlington was between Manse and the turkey. Manse didn’t know how to use the choke on his gun, and he was standing on an incline. His footing was unsteady, the barrel of his gun making little dips and swirls as he tried to draw a bead on the big bird.
“Manse.” Earlington’s voice was a dry croak. “Don’t—”
Earlington knew Manse was going to go for the shot. He turned and threw himself flat as the gun boomed behind him. If he had to get hit, he’d rather take the 00 shot in the ass or thighs than the face or throat.
Most of the buckshot hit the rocky ground beside Earlington, but something hot and fast passed through his right bicep. Earlington heard the clatter of buckshot on stone and felt chips of stone and metal fragments strike his face.
“Fucker,” Manse said, loudly sucking air as he lumbered past Earlington. “I’m gonna get that fuck!”
Earlington tried to open his eyes. Only the left one worked. The right one was numb, and his right cheek was wet.
It’s just grit in your eye, he told himself. Just a few scratches. You’re fine.
He couldn’t bring himself to reach up and touch his dead eye. He was afraid of what he might find.
Earlington raised his head and saw Manse closing in on the tom, and then the big bird jigged to one side and Manse disappeared. He could hear the sound of stone striking stone, and then Manse was calling for help. The man’s voice was high-pitched and filled with terror.
Brushing blood away from his good eye, Earlington staggered to the top of the ridge.
At some time in the past the other side of the hill had collapsed and fallen away. Earlington was standing near the edge of a cliff. There was a wide field of debris far below. Earlington didn’t want to get too close to the edge. The rock on the rim was fractured and looked fragile. He peered over the edge.
Manse was a few feet below the cliff edge. The man was spread-eagle, hugging the rock face, hanging onto nothing. His hands and feet were moving slowly, looking for any kind of hold.
Manse looked up. His voice was faint, merely a breath. “My jacket. I think I’m hung up. Help me, man. Help me.”
Earlington thought about it. He watched Manse grab at a shelf of rock, and watched the rock crumble and fall away. Some hidden part of Manse’s jacket began tearing away. Manse started to cry.
“Son of a bitch,” Earlington said. He got down, his belly flat against the exposed rock. He started inching forward, reaching over and down.
He still had a foot or so to go when Manse jerked and silently tumbled out of sight.
Manse left patches of red all the way down the cliff face, and burst open when he hit bottom.
Earlington panicked. Instead of inching backwards to safety he put his palms against the rock to push away. Fractured stone dropped out from under him.
His left hand found a jutting shard of stone shaped like a rhino horn. He grabbed it and cried out as chunks of gray rock slid past him and out from under him and thundered down the side of the cliff, raising dust and covering Manse.
Earlington tried to raise his right arm. His bicep burned. He couldn’t do it. He tried to pull himself up. The horn of rock moved. Rills of dust fell from the base of the rock.
“Oh Jesus,” Earlington said.
He couldn’t hang on forever. Sooner or later his strength would run out or the weakening horn of rock would break away.
He felt the vibration in his fingers again, and decided he had to try to pull himself up. One shot. Take it, now.
Earlington started to pull. The rock shivered and shifted, but he was sure it was going to hold his weight. He was gonna make it.
He heard the flutter of wings, the rustle of feathers. He heard an inquisitive gobble.
The turkey was standing on the cliff edge. It looked at him curiously, its little head bobbing up and down. It stepped onto the horn of rock.
Earlington had time to think, twenty-five pounds, it’s gotta weigh at least twenty-five pounds, and then the rock broke away.
The man fell.
The bird flew, its flight becoming an awkward glide back to the safety of the deep woods.
(Turkey Shoot is one of two dozen Dark Tales from the Golden State, now available in Califhorrornia. Click on the cover photo to buy it now!)