Stumbling over rocky Texas terrain isn’t exactly easy. Combine that with darkness and we’re falling hands over feet where everything pokes, pricks, and bites. There are no lights on this trek. We’re trying to get within range of long-beard turkeys thundering their morning wake up calls. White flashlight beams bouncing through scrub isn’t what most hunters would consider a stealth tactic, but it’s the best we had.
Logan is familiar with guns, but a first-time hunter. I’ve stressed the importance of stillness to her. A hunter can shift a little near big Toms, blind with testosterone and ready to fight. But if he’s accompanied by hens, you’ d better be a statue. They’ll flee at the slightest movement. We slip in towards the sound of the awakening birds and quietly settle down. Day 1.
This trip started six years ago halfway around the world. War zones have a funny way of forming quick bonds between two people. When Lee arrived to our compound in Afghanistan he was ready to work. He was a K9 handler (a damn good one), and loved his job while taking it very seriously.
Lee had another lovehis daughter Logan. He couldn’t wait to see her the moment he got back. His camo Virginia Tech hat gave me a reason to ask if he was a hunter. He smiled and said yeah but I don’t get to do it much here in his southern Virginia drawl. I agreed. It was March, 2012 and there was no chance I was going to be in the woods anytime soon.
The sun started to make herself known and the birds were wound up. From the sound of it, there were 810 turkeys gobbling. The melody rolled across the open field like waves breaking; it’s one of my favorite sounds. Logan gazed with her big, pretty eyes expressing reverence and excitement. She was hooked. A bird fluttered to the ground, she jumped. I can’t lie, I jumped a little, too. My pulse quickened when I saw the big Rio Grande bird 15 yards to our right. He was obscured by brush, nearing our decoy. But there was one problem: a hen turkey was closing in on the decoy, too. Our Rio Grande boy, once dead set on our well-laid trap, was now enamored with the live hen. We waited.
The turkeys’ courtship unfolded in front of us, while a younger turkey, a Jake, was drawn to the drama. I knew this was our chance and told Logan to get ready. History told me the Tom would abandon his courting dance to teach the youngster a lesson: run him off directly in front of us. That’s exactly what he did.
Logan is left-eye right-hand dominant, not easy but now she had the addition of adrenaline. Heart pounding, hands shaking. She struggled to find the red dot she so easily found when practiced at the range. Our hopes faded as the scuffle ended and the courtship moved farther away. Logan was near tears, but I was happy. I was proud of her for holding fire and keeping cool. First time temptation often leads to sloppy shots, but Logan passed, recalling the words of her father: If you don’t have a shot, don’t shoot.
I was about a month out from returning home. Part of my duties involved me visiting outlying camps that were in Helmand province one of the more dangerous areas of southern Afghanistan. I landed and went to go check on my boys, get the situation report, and tour the facility. I caught a glimpse of Lee out by the dog kennels, and walked over. We quickly talked about work and I said we should be hunting and not cleaning dog kennels in shit-can-istan. He laughed and kept at his work. He was like that.
Logan was pretty bummed about the morning hunt. The opportunity got away from her. I asked if she’ d enjoyed the turkeys’ gobbles and fantastic scenery a sight most never have the privilege to see. She smiled and said yes. Hunting has no script. What she experienced is all part of the learning curve, but the fact that she enjoyed it completed the lesson.
Lee had dreams of taking our girls hunting when all of this was over. Both of our girls, Logan and Lauren, liked the outdoors and were close in age. Lee and I had a lot in common; we loved to hunt, were about a year apart, and we both adored our daughters. If you’re not a dad, you won’t get it and if you are, you can’t explain it.
My friend Andrew had hunted this area before and knew the lay of the land. He lead us through some cleared cedar and bumped into a hen good and bad. They were near, but I was worried they might see us before we see them.
As we were moving through an open meadow, I hit a box call and got an immediate reply. Not an ideal scenario. Quickly, we hobbled to the brush. We stopped and I cut on a diaphragm call, immediately more than one bird cut us off with a gobble. Logan loaded her gun.
The birds gobbled again, they were close but out of sight. It was go time. I put Logan on my right side and helped her set up shooting sticks. I hissed under my breath, Find your dot, Got it she whispered back. I crawled out in front of us, set up a strutter decoy, and crawled back. Be ready was all the advice I could muster.
Over the tops of a prickly pear cactus to my left I see two glowing red, white, and blue heads and the big beautiful fans of a Rio Grande turkey. When you have a clear shot, take it
I called and they cut me off again, looking for the hen they wanted to impress. They continued to walk, Ten more feet and we have them at 25 yards dead in front of us. I heard the safety click and the muffled sound of a suppressed 12 gauge breathing the copper plated payload. She didn’t hesitate.
When I got a stateside job offer, I knew I wouldn’t come back to Afghanistan. Lee had a couple more tours in him, but wanted get home to watch Logan finish high school. I shook his hand, gave him a hug, and said, I’ll set up the hunt for the four of us when you’re ready. I went home.
Lee and I stayed in touch. He said he was done after 2013, and I was looking forward to getting all of us on a hunt.
I never saw him again. Lee was killed December 26, 2013.
Like a kid on his first hunt, I jumped up and ran to the birds. Logan’s shot hit the mark and she doubled! Two birds with one shot! I glanced back at her and saw the smile on her face, Andrew jumped up and ran to her and hugged her. We did it.
As we admired the birds, the beards, and the spurs, my excitement gave way to respect to my fallen friend. I walked off for a moment of silence. I’m not perfect and have my flaws like everyone else, but I came through and kept a promise to my buddy that we’d turkey hunt together. I was proud of that. Maybe Lee wasn’t physically there, but we felt his presence.
When I asked Logan about two birds, one stone, she very simply replied. One for me, One for Diddy.