Target shooting is a discipline I enjoy a great deal. I have a collection of rifles from a 17 caliber all the way to an 1886 45-70, with a .22, .204, .223 and 30-06 in between. I’m not a competition shooter but I’m accurate and at a hundred yards I can hold a pattern the size of silver dollar. With the .204 or .223 I can reach out to two or three hundred yards and reliably hit something the size of a coffee can. The fearsome 30-06 hits larger targets at five hundred yards. It’s a rush, a feeling of power. The sphere of one’s influence grows considerably—the ability to protect prerogatives, or if necessary exact retribution.
The picture of the land we carry in our mind is always, or at least often, a bit out of date and not completely in focus. Perhaps the same could be said of life. Houses clutter the pristine valley, some of them shabby, others self-indulgent and too large, lacking good taste and subtlety or any attempt to blend with the natural surroundings. The state of Montana expanded the two-lane highway into four lanes. The wealthy land speculator scarred the mountain slopes with ski runs and a resort complex. What was once regional flavor is giving way to the corporate image of fast food and mini malls. None of which reflects the good old days of Mom & Pop and local small enterprise. But regardless of the changes I still love this valley, the Bitterroot Mountains to the west and Sapphire Mountains in the east; and I have a nice house, a house built by a man who had a sense of the environment and was not pretentious or overly self-indulgent.
My home sits three or four hundred feet above the valley floor, surrounded by ponderosa pines and overlooking a creek (crick), which winds along the valley’s eastern edge. The valley is anywhere from five to maybe eight miles wide and stretches to the base of the jagged Bitterroot Mountains, with their snowcapped peaks and plunging ravines. Put simply, I enjoy a wonderful view and privacy. My nearest neighbor is several hundred yards to the west. His house, like mine, is neither pretentious nor an eyesore. It sits unobtrusively on a small point of land. My long driveway is gravel, and my property—three and a third acres—borders large tracts of undeveloped land to the east and southeast. These tracts remain a sanctuary for wild creatures.
I moved into my house in late July of last year. My first visitors were chipmunks. They realized I tossed out birdseed for the doves, and within a few weeks my yard went from zero chipmunks to at least a dozen. They like the rock wall I built to line the driveway. It offers countless little holes and hiding places. The land I live on is glacial moraine, leftover from the last several ice ages, and it’s rife with rocks ranging in size from tennis balls to basketballs, some even larger. I can’t dig a hole without hitting rocks, lots of them, and more rocks litter the ground. So one of my first projects was collecting rocks to clear the fields, making it easier to mow the weeds and wild grasses, to maintain firebreaks, and it made sense to use this resource to build walls—short walls without concrete.
Chipmunks are very inquisitive and they wasted little time investigating my downstairs garage and almost everything else, and it didn’t take long for them to discover where I kept the bag of birdseed. I had to place it inside a plastic trashcan or risk having them gnaw holes in the bag. Within a month, mule and whitetail deer visited too, sometimes as many as sixteen, with a handsome seven-point buck and his four-point understudy.
The deer, unlike the chipmunks, are wary and will move away if they see me, easily leaping over the old barbed wire fence to the southeast. I bought a bale of alfalfa hoping the deer would like it and stick around. But they only nibbled before deciding it wasn’t to their taste. They’re browsers more than grazers; however, I don’t mean that in a scientific way, because I don’t fully understand the eating habits of deer.
Along with the deer came wild turkeys. At first in small numbers, three, four, maybe six, and a mother with two youngsters; and then one day a flock of fourteen came through, females and three toms. I was glad to see them and tried to interest them in birdseed, but when I stepped outside with my offering they became suspicious and moved off.
I constructed a feeder for the doves with long legs to keep the chipmunks from stealing the seeds, although they were clever and figured out how to climb up and stuff their cheeks. As summer ended, the doves flew south and I saw less of the turkeys. The deer were unpredictable. I never knew when they would pass through. Only the chipmunks and a few magpies remained as my constant companions. After I’d built a wooden deck off the back of the house, the chipmunks investigated it top to bottom and learned to use the wood stairs. Chipmunks can spring upward three times their body length and jump down two or more feet without consequence. Gravity for chipmunks is not a major issue.
Come late September, I was working in the yard and noticed a large tom turkey walking across the yellow field to the southeast. He spotted me but didn’t seem nervous and made his way to the barbwire fence. I watched as he figured out how to negotiate the gap between the wires. Lone turkeys are largely the exception—unless it’s nesting time and the females leave the flock—so I figured this fellow had probably been vanquished by a dominate male or group of males, although I can’t say that for certain.
From experience I knew bachelor toms, or jakes as some call them, would stay together three or four to a group. But I don’t ever recall seeing a single male. I went inside and got a slice of bread and walked toward the tom. He was in a dry grassy area about thirty yards from the house and didn’t seem worried about my approach. When I was within throwing distance I tossed balls of bread to him. He watched with curiosity before deciding to check what I was offering; then he tentatively tried one, then another. I continued throwing the bread balls, each bringing him a little closer. When I tossed the last piece he was less than twenty feet away.
The next day I bought a bag of cracked corn with sunflower seeds, knowing turkeys like it. I hoped he would return, and he did a couple days later. So I scattered a handful on the driveway. Within a week he was stopping by each morning and afternoon for his handout, and within a few days after that he was eating bread out of my hand. I was delighted. I live alone and even though I am reasonably comfortable with solitude, having a turkey visit was something I looked forward to. I named him Big Birdy and developed a special call, a high-pitch falsetto yelp that went: “Turkey, turkey, turk.” It didn’t take long until I could call him in from a hundred yards away.
Turkeys are more intelligent than they get credit for—at least wild turkeys—and within a week he’d climbed the stairs to the wood deck, peering through the double French doors into my study as if wondering where I was. A sign of his intelligence lay in his abstract ability to go beyond the association of food and me to the more complex association of the door and me. This small action may not seem like much, but in my college days I studied behavioral psychology. Although basic operant conditioning comes easy for animals, understanding that the door through which I magically appeared was, in fact, symbolically representative of food is a more advanced association.
In addition, his large brown eyes had a sense about them, a glimmer of what seemed like recognition that went beyond the mechanical indifference of basic animal biology. Some might say I was anthropomorphizing, but I’m not sure I would agree. He also made turkey talk when he approached me. He had a particular sound in his repertoire that seemed communicative. It wasn’t a gobble or a call or a squawk, it was a friendly chirp. And he liked hanging around while I worked in the yard, preening his feathers, pecking at wild seeds and watching me. I had the feeling he was lonely and enjoyed having someone to flock with, and despite my being a poor substitute for a female or a couple fellow toms, I was apparently better than nothing.
With the arrival of October, deer and turkey hunting season opens. Folks in Montana like their hunting. Humans have been hunters for hundreds of thousands of years. I suspect in certain respects it’s ingrained. Perhaps someday in the distant future humans will evolve beyond instinctual or historically instilled behaviors. Maybe in a thousand years we’ll all be vegetarians, if we don’t kill the planet or ourselves in the meantime. Some people don’t like hunting but they don’t mind the butcher doing the dirty work. Other people object to hunting and are vegetarians or animal rights advocates. I think animal rights have a place in our world, though I find it strange that some fanatics worry more about animal rights than human rights. Even stranger, I’ve known animal-rights advocates who didn’t object to abortions. It gets complicated. I don’t pretend to have answers, but if there is a God, God created a theater of existence wherein life destroys life in order to survive. I guess God doesn’t mind killing, although I’m not interested in religious debates.
Provided no one crosses me, I say live and let live; except I don’t think people should be cruel to animals, but I don’t expect this will become a reality in my lifetime. That’s that.
In Montana, if you own land and don’t want people hunting on it, the simplest way to communicate your policy is to spray orange patches of paint on tree trunks or nail orange pieces of wood on fences, etc. My land is not a place I would expect hunters to show up. On the other hand, they are often in the valley or northeast towards the Sapphire Mountains.
With each passing week I heard more distant gunfire, much of it the big booming sounds of large gauge shotguns—which means turkey hunters—and I worried about my feathered friend when he didn’t come around for two days. Then, on the morning of the third day, I was relieved when I saw Mr. Turkey walking through the field. But I also heard someone using a turkey call, not far from the creek running through the southwestern edge of my property. I began worrying again.
I suspected it was a turkey call because it was too persistent and evenly timed. Female turkeys make their calls in short repetitive groupings, then fall silent before starting back up. This call maintained constant intervals for close to a minute. I was afraid my friend the turkey would get tricked and think he had found a potential girlfriend. So I walked down to the slope that falls off sharply to the creek, thinking I’d spot the hunter; and if he was on the narrow strip of land just beyond the creek, I’d ask him not to hunt on my property. When I couldn’t spot him, I figured he was on the large tract of land owned by the farmer who grows grass hay and alfalfa. My turkey friend would have to fend for himself. I wondered if feeding him and making him unafraid of people was a mistake and I had done a disservice. But I liked having him come around, so maybe I was selfish. Sometimes living is too complicated. How does one arrive at the right way to act?
In the late 1990s, in certain circles, I was a well-known singer/songwriter, and like many musicians and entertainers I got into alcohol and drugs and finally ended up in rehab—it was the fashionable thing. During the difficult process of getting sober, I had to confront certain problems and conflicts from my past. Self-medication had been my way of coping with old hurts and rage issues. Moving to Montana was part of my staying-clean strategy.
I needed to put distance between myself and the people I used to party with, it was much too easy to walk onto thin ice in the old neighborhood, too easy to slip on the strip, as we used to say. The good news is I’ve been on the straight and narrow for a year, a month, and twenty-one days. And how many hours? That’s a joke sober people make, having it down to the exact hour when you got clean—because you count every minute. It helps keep the sober momentum. But I still have to be careful because sometimes I’m my own worst enemy. I act impulsively. Most addicts do. Like having a switch go off inside your head. When it does, you do things that might not make sense.
The morning of October twentieth was bright and blue and relatively warm (low fifties), and I was in my study working on an oil painting, a knock off of van Gogh’s The Sower. In high school I’d painted a little, and after moving to Montana I started again. It was therapeutic. The study door was open, with a large wedge of warm sunlight slanting through, and I suddenly realized Mr. Turkey had invited himself inside. He was standing just over the threshold looking at me, his head cocked slightly, his large dark eyes sparkling in the light.
“You want your breakfast, I assume,” I said to him.
He made his turkey talk, several small chirps.
“Hang on.” I walked down the hall to the kitchen to get a slice of bread. When I returned and squatted down, he stepped forward. I reached out and patted him gently on the back, which surprised him and he hurried for the doorway.
“You’re all right, mate,” I said, in my Steve Irwin voice. He stopped. I offered the slice of bread. He ate it up. One big mouthful after another, and I knew he wanted more food. So I went back to the kitchen to get a bowl of corn and sunflower seeds. By the time I’d come back, he’d wandered outside to the wooden deck. In in the bright sunlight his feathers shone, dark gray-blue, black and brown, with highlights of iridescent bronze and deep emerald green. He was a handsome big bird, two feet tall at the head, healthy and strong. He ate the cracked corn and seeds—I went back to my painting. I had also placed a bowl of water for him, and after finishing the corn he took several long drinks. Two chipmunks sneaked up to get at the leftovers. He paid them no attention and walked back inside as if to make sense of the house. I wondered what his little turkey brain was thinking. He craned his neck, peered, watched me, and then started preening his feathers. After fluffing himself up and shaking his feathers, he turned toward the door and went outside. I watched him walk down the stairs and out into the field.
“What a character,” I said to myself. Later in the afternoon I went to the workshop in my downstairs garage and sawed up some old plywood to make six one-foot squares. I painted them with day-glow orange spray paint I’d bought the previous day and then walked down to the creek to post them on trees at the edge of my property.
A week passed. Mr. Turkey and I enjoyed each other’s company; he ate well, and I chuckled at his odd habits. Life was good in my little slice of paradise. Never dreamed I’d be lucky enough to find such a nice house in such beautiful surroundings. Never thought I would have enough money, but things went my way and not only did I have the house, I had resources enough to free me from the drudgery of forty-hour workweeks.
How that transpired, I won’t go into—it’s another story—but between my music, painting, and tending my home and property I enjoyed a pretty good life. Except for loneliness, and the unsettling feelings that go along with the fight to stay sober. Coming back from a long run on drugs or alcohol, or both, doesn’t get fixed in a matter of months, not in a year. It can take many years, or even a decade. The old problems and conflicts are always lurking down there in the shadows of one’s being.
The solitude was strange at first—at times even frightening—but as months passed, I came to welcome it as an opportunity to know myself, to understand who I was without the “me” that exists for the other. Because we are not only who we are in an elemental sense, we are beings who fall into various roles according to the people who surround or confront us. When there’s no one around, you are you without the influence of another person. An interesting shift in reality.
I invested myself in the friendship with the turkey, and with the other animals that came and went. I went to town once or twice a week, talked with the post office ladies, checkers at the supermarket or gas station, and of course old friends would call me or I’d call them. But on a day-to-day basis I was alone. I talked to myself quite a bit, which I suspect is normal, and I talked to Mr. Turkey. He was a good listener.
Toward the end of October, I heard the turkey call coming from the valley. This time I got out my binoculars and scanned the farmer’s green pastures. I saw a tall man, young by the look of him, stalking through the field, dressed in camouflage pants and jacket and carrying a fancy hunting bow. I watched as he hunched over and squeezed through the barbed wire fence separating the farmer’s forty acres from the small stripe of my land that lay just beyond the creek.
He was trespassing, but as long as he stayed on the southwest side of the creek, I wouldn’t confront him. He stopped, crouched down and started making the turkey call. Oh, shit, I thought, he’s spotted my turkey. I started down the gentle slope leading from my house to the steep slope that fell off to the creek. I lost sight of the hunter, but I heard the reedy sound of the turkey call, and it was getting closer. As I made my way through a tangle of shrubs along the cut bank, I looked up and saw the hunter on the other side of the creek, shading his eyes, watching me. He was still on my property. He seemed annoyed.
“How you doing?” I said as I reached the edge of the creek.
“I’m doing alright.” He had a look that seemed to say: Who the hell are you?
So I figured I’d cut right to the chase. “This is private property.”
“I got permission from the owner,” he said, smirking.
“Actually when you crossed that fence you came onto my land and you don’t have my permission and I don’t allow hunting.” I pointed at the fence. He glanced over his shoulder.
“That’s just a fence line for grazing animals. Property line’s the middle of the crick, old man Jenkins told me.”
This caught me off guard. I wasn’t sure where the line was; I’d never located the benchmarks, although I had a good idea, judging from the property map, that my land went just beyond the creek.
“Well …” I said, giving myself time to think. “ … I don’t have a map here in my hand, but let’s put it this way. For the time being we’ll assume you’re right, but that aside I don’t want you crossing the creek to hunt. Because I know this side is my property. Let’s just let it go at that.”
“Yeah, whatever.” He turned and headed upstream, which took him away from my land. I was satisfied. Although I decided right then that I would eventually hire a survey team to find the exact benchmarks. Land is land, and I was damn sure going to get clear on what was or wasn’t mine. A man’s home is his castle.
Later that day my turkey buddy showed up at his usual time. I gave him a slice of bread and a bowl of corn and sunflower seeds, and I warned him to stay close to my house, and I really wished he could understand. There was something very noble about him, despite his strange baldhead, his red bumpy turkey skin and the hair-like feathers growing from the protrusion on top of his head. Some people say turkeys are ugly and stupid, but I saw something special in his eyes, a strange sentience and an unlikely intelligence.
He wasn’t just a dumb turkey. Maybe he was descended from dinosaurs, fierce raptors. Seventy million years ago his distant cousins roamed the untamed earth striking fear in lesser beasts. Raptors according to scientists had large brains and probably hunted in packs, and they might have had simple forms of communication. If the giant meteor had missed the Earth, maybe they would have evolved into something amazing.
A light snow fell on the morning of the twenty-seventh and I slept in late. I think a nasty little depression was moving in on me. Probably a genetic tendency combined with my difficult childhood, and everything exacerbated by the foolish lifestyle I’d cultivated during my drug and alcohol days. And because I’d slept in late, Mr. Turkey was wondering what was up. While I was heating water for my coffee I heard a loud “gobble, gobble” coming from the front of the house. My house has two stories … sort of. And what I mean by that is that the bottom half is cut into the slope of the hill, over six feet deep at the back. The framing is built on concrete stem walls and the bottom half is the garage.
The living half of the house is atop the garage. To access the front door I walk up two flights of stairs and arrive at a wooden landing. In the light snow on the stairs that morning I saw turkey footprints. In his impatience to discover why he wasn’t getting breakfast he’d climbed up and then gone back down—he has large feet, three times the size of a chicken. I opened the door and saw him standing at the foot of the stairs.
I called: “Turkey, turkey, turk.” He looked at me and started back up the stairs.
I gave him extra bread. Once again he had demonstrated superior intelligence. I’d never fed him at the front door, only at the back, but he had made another complex association by realizing I came and went through more than one door. If one door didn’t provide food, he’d try another. What an amazing bird.
The following day I bought six trees. The nursery was having a fall sale. Three cottonwoods and three aspens, which I would plant along the driveway to add color to the fall. Not only was I living in my own little paradise, it was a paradise I could continually improve. Of course digging the holes would not be easy, and I wanted deep holes with room for lots of humus. Here’s how I did it: First I’d start with a shallow hole about five or six inches deep, then I’d fill it with water and start digging the next hole, and so on. By the time I had dug the last hole, the water in the first hole had soaked in and loosened the soil.
I was planting the third tree when I noticed something moving out of the corner of my eye, on my side of the fence line, a ways down the slope toward the creek. I didn’t have my glasses. Things were a bit blurry, so I squinted. It was Mr. Turkey, earlier than usual. As I watched him I noticed something wasn’t right; he wasn’t walking with his usual stride, that odd contrast of top-heaviness and grace. “Hey, turkey, turk,” I called out. He stopped. I walked toward him, and as I got closer I notice something protruding from his side.
“Oh, shit,” I said. I realized an arrow was dragging behind him. It looked like it had hit him in the shoulder just under his wing and passed almost completely through so that only the feathered end showed at one side and the long bloodied shaft at the other.
“Goddamnit!” I yelled.
When I was close enough to reach out, he turned as if to run away, but I talked to him in my turkey voice and he looked at me. “Let me help you,” I said. “Don’t be afraid.”
I bent over and slowly leaned forward and then extended my hands toward him. He didn’t react; he kept looking at me through his large dark-brown eyes, as if hoping I could somehow help him. And I know it sounds crazy but I swear it’s true. I gently touched his back and placed my other hand under his breastbone and lifted him. By moving slowly in increments, I managed to gather him up against my chest. The arrow point was savagely sharp and had torn nasty gashes in him; blood was all over my white T-shirt. I didn’t know what to do. Take him to a veterinarian? Try to pull the arrow out? I felt helpless and desperate. Then I heard a voice. “Hey, that’s my kill you got there.”
I glanced up and saw the same man I had confronted the previous week. “You’re on my land,” I shouted.
He spat a mouthful of tobacco juice. “What’s your problem, man?”
“You’re trespassing—get the hell off my property.”
“I want my bird.”
I felt the turkey’s body going limp in my arms. Blood was everywhere. He was bleeding to death. I looked in his eyes for a moment and thought I saw something almost human, gratitude maybe, some sort of ineffable acknowledgment, and a look that somehow crossed the chasm separating us.
Then his neck went limp and his head fell to his chest. I knew he’d passed—I felt the death quiver. So I set him down in the wild yellow grasses.
“I shot him down on the flats, down in old man Jenkins’ field and not on your property. He made a good run … that’s all.”
It didn’t matter whether I believed him or not. Part of me wanted to attack with my fists or with a stick or something, but he was younger and larger than me and I figured winning out in a brawl was a long shot.
“Go ahead, take him. He’s all yours,” I said. Just get the hell out of my sight.”
The hunter gave me a look and gestured with his free hand. “Glad we worked it out, no hard feelings. Right?”
“Sure. But get off my land.”
“It’s just a stupid turkey, man.”
I headed back to my house. Once inside I had an odd revelation come over me, an understanding of something I’d never conceived before, a sense that justice is not something that occurs of its own; it requires a sense of self-integrity, forceful and demanding action.
Then I felt that switch go off, but it’s not something I can describe. It’s a feeling that destiny has taken the reins and what is about to happen was already meant to happen, and the inertia of it is irresistible. Maybe in some sort of oblique sense it’s like freedom. Freedom to do the very thing that is forbidden. So I went to the rifle closet, grabbed my .223 and loaded a single round. From the wooden deck I watched the hunter remove the arrow, toss my friend over his shoulder and start down the slope to the creek.
I rested the rifle on the 2 x 4 railing and set the crosshairs below the man’s shoulder blade, just left of center. I hesitated a moment, considering the consequences, then pulled the trigger.
The 45-grain bullet travels at 3,300 feet per second, about Mach-3. Faster than a jet fighter, and the impact sent wave-like ripples through the camouflage jacket and knocked the man forward. He yelped, a reflexive, primeval sound, before tumbling down the slope in an awkward motion. The polymer-tipped bullet had exploded like shrapnel inside his chest cavity, and much like my friend the turkey he would bleed out in a matter of minutes.
“Fuck him,” I said aloud, and started figuring how to get rid of the body. There are many ways if you think clearly and don’t panic. Shoot, shovel and shut the fuck up. There weren’t witnesses and gunfire goes off all the time. Nobody would think twice, never even scratch a head or blink an eye.
One thing was certain. Everything had changed. But then if worse came to worse, I could leave my home and head east to a faraway land, or north to the arctic plains of Canada. I could just disappear. Because sometimes there are bridges that only go in one direction, like a threshold between worlds; and I suppose you could say there were many questions that would remain just out of focus, unanswered or even asked.
G. D. McFetridge, iconoclast and philosopher, writes from his wilderness home in Montana’s majestic Sapphire Mountains. His fiction and essays are published in academic journals and reviews as well as commercial literary magazines, across America, in Canada and Australia, India, Ireland, Germany and the UK.