TURKEY TOM OF “ARKINSAW”

Written for the N. Y. “Spirit of the Times” by “Chasseur Boheme.”

The Southwest, in years gone by, as the “Bee Hunter” well knows, was full of original characters; many still linger among us, but the clearings which everywhere prevail are letting in the sunshine of conventional life, and fast consuming the individualities alluded to. Among those who have left a mark upon the neighborhood in which they lived, was “Turkey Tom;” he has long since disappeared, but he is still remembered as one of the best hunters and awfullest liars on record.

Tom was not reckoned much of a beauty, he was a long lank pattern of humanity, hawk-nosed and hatchet-faced, with shocking red hair, and a pair of deep sunken grey eyes, which were always “skinned,” and appeared to be trying to get a peep into the middle of next week. He was born, bred, brought up, and polished off, in the state of Arkansas, and left home with a through ticket for any kind of a spree--from a ball to a “bar-fight,” from a corn-shucking to an election riot--a graduate at all kinds of hunting, but “special death to turkies, bar, and deer.” His habits were solitary, and he built his cabin far from his fellows in the heart of the woods. Occasionally, though, he would come into town always with his rifle on shoulder, and then the grocery was his headquarters for the day. Striding up to the bar with his long swining gait, he would turn to the crowd with the airs of a prince, and with a majestic wave of his hand: “Gentlemen, yours obejiently; what are we to drink?” The company were expected to “jine in.” Tom had but one toast, and that invariably after touching glasses all round: “Gents, to the bottom if it was forty feet,” and down went the whiskey without a pause. Usually very taciturn, nothing short of a gallon of “the aforesaid” could induce him to “open;” but once started, he could discourse by the hour upon the glories and beauties of his native State--Arkansas. Hear him “spread himself:”

“Arkinsaw is the garden spot of arth--the cream of the created univarse. The sile is richer and game is plentier than in any other section in the world. The only drawback to health is the human arthquakes--fever and ague, as some folks call ‘em--which is orful. In fact, I have known the ‘shakes’ so bad that the simmons were all shuck off o’ the trees’ and the glass all shattered outer the winders. Besides, the travelin’ aint nuthin to brag on. I remember gwine up the Arkinsaw river onc’t, and every mile or so the passengers had to git out and shove the boat over the sand-bars; and one mornin’ the fog was so thick that we had to use bowie-knives to cut our way through. Arkinsaw beats the world for black bars, purty wimmen, and big timber. I’ve seen trees there so high that the first limbs were clean outer sight, and so big that it took a week to walk around ‘em. A feller started oncet to walk through one that was holler without carryin’ his vittals with him, and he starved to death on the trip. I was gwine up the Mississip onc’t in one of them little up-country boats, when we met a big Arkinsaw cypress floatin’ down. I tell you it was a whopper. The Cap’n run his boat alongside, and fastened the ropes to it. Off she started snortin’ and puffin’, but it didn’t budge a peg. The Capen ripped aroun’, cussin’ like fury, and hollerin’ out, ‘Fire up below there, you lubberly rascals!’ The wheels clattered away, and the blaze rolled from the chimbly, but that log was actilly carryin’ us down stream. Dreckly up come a feller in a red shirt, and says he, ‘Capen, you are strainin’ the ingine mitily.’ ‘Cut loose and let it go, then,’ says the Capen. They cut the ropes, and the boat then went ahead a little ways, but the ingine was raly so exhausted that we jest had to stop. Next day there come along a fine big steamer; we hailed her, got aboard, and there was that same log hitched alongside. We wooded off o’ that cypress all the way to Memphis.

“Black bars are bigger, plentier, and more cunnin’ in Arkinsaw, than in the rest of creation. The old hes have a way o’ standin’ on their hind legs and makin’ a mark with their paws as high as they can reach on the bark of some certin tree, generally a sasserfras. It’s a kinder rekurd they keep, and I spose it’s a great satisfaction to an old he bar to have the highest mark on the tree. I was a layin’ hid one day close to a tree where the bars wur in the habit of makin’ their marks, watin’ for one of ‘em to come along. After a while I hears a noise close to me, and lookin’ aroun’, what should I see but a small bar walkin’ straight on his hind legs, with a big chunk in his arms? I could a’ shot him easy, but I was mity curious to see what he was gwine to do with that chunk. He carried it rite to the tree where the marks wur, stood it on eend against it, and then gittin’ on top of it reached way up the tree and made a big mark about a foot above the highest. He then got down, moved the chunk way off from the tree, and you never seen any such caperin’ as he cut up. He would look up at his mark, and then lay down and roll over in the leaves, laughin’ outright, just like a person; no doubt tickled at the way somebody would be fooled. There was somethin’ so human about it I hadn’t the heart to shoot him.

“Just to show how cunnin’ bars are I’ll tell you what happened to me up in Arkinsaw. You see, one fall, before I gathered my corn, I kept missin’ it outer the field, and I knew the bars were takin’ it, for I could see their tracks; but what seemed mity curious, I never could find where they eat it--nary cob nowheres abouts. One mornin’ arly I happened aroun’ the field, and there I saw an old she and two cubs just come outer the patch, walking off with their arms full o’ corn. I was determined to find out what they did with so much corn, and follered along after ‘em without makin’ any noise. Well, after goin’ nearly a mile, I saw em stop, and--gents, what do you think?--there was a pen full o’ hogs, and the bars wur feedin’ ‘em. You see that season the hogs wur so poor, on account of having no mast, that they wouldn’t make even good bar feed, and these bars had actilly built a rail pen, put hogs in it, and were fattenin’ ‘em with my corn!”

I recollect well the first time I ever saw “Turkey Tom.” Some years since I was out hunting early one morning morning during the “gobbling season” and was quietly stealing through the woods, when I was suddenly accosted by some one issuing from a thicket.

“Hillo! I say, stranger, you aint seen nuthin of a one-eyed, ball-face, bob-tail pony cruising aroun’ here this mornin’?”

“Nary one-eyed, ball-face, bob-tail pony, my friend,” I replied.

“Well, I reckun the little cuss has strayed off to’ards home.”

[Unclear] about moving on, when, seeing that he carried a rifle, I asked him if he had been successful in hunting.

“Stranger,” he answered me, “I am allers successful, and it don’


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matter whether in clearin’ or canebrake, ef ever I put my eye on a varmint he has about as much chance as a nigger baby in a bar-fight--he’s a gone darkey, certin’. As fur turkies, I don’t know whether they wur made fur me to hunt, or I wur made jest to hunt ‘em. You see, when I wur a baby they give me a turkey-bone to cut teeth on, and I rather reckun it worked into my natur’. Stranger, a turkey gobbler is mity cunnin’--the cunninest thing in the wurld, I reckon, except a wide-awake wider, or a one-eyed banker. Hunt a gobbler, sit close for a while, and he will git so smart that he won’t gobble without runnin’ his head in a holler, and won’t cross a branch where it is muddy enough to show his tracks. Up in Arkinsaw once I hunted jest sich a one a considerable spell afore I fixed him. I had my heart set on killing him, and I actilly believe if I hadn’t got that gobbler it would have been the death of me. He dodged me so long that I was jest wastin’ away to a shadder. That turkey roosted on my stomach and gobbled in my ears every night. At last, though, I fixed his flint for him. I diskivered he was too fat and too heavy to fly, and, findin’ it wur no manner of use tryin’ to burn powder at him, one mornin’ I put my dogs on his scratchins. My dogs is fast, but they run that gobbler three hours before they caught him. The last mile I could track him jest by the grease that dropped out him as he became heated, and when the dogs picked him up he wur actilly nuthin but one gob of ile and feathers. Stranger, that gobbler’s beard was so long that he allers carried the end of it his mouth in running to keep from treadin’ on it, and his spurs were so big that I used one of ‘em for a powder horn.

“Remarkably large turkies you have in Arkinsaw,” I hinted.

“Yes, stranger, but everything else is big in proportion in that State. The musketeers grow to be as big as jack snipes, and the ticks are larger than your terrapins here.”

That is my earliest recollection of “Turkey Tom.”

Pray for him and let him pass!

Alluding to my reminiscences, I am rejoiced if my scaly chat has recalled to memory the many pleasant hours which you have wiled a way on the shady banks of the sparkling Amite, and spent in spinning the minnows over the clear lakes of “old Concordia,” casting about the mouth of the Cocodra, where bar-fish and trout most do congregate. Blessed are they “whose lines have fallen in pleasant places.” What a host of reminiscences must crowd upon you as you revert to the days of long ago--the days of picture painting and parlor life--the days spent by the rolling surf of the Southern Gulf, fishing, crabbing, and tempting the lazy gull within gunshot--the ruder days of hunter’s life in swamp and canebrake--the days of “Live Oak inspector,” shooting ibis and alligators along the sluggish Bayous of Louisiana--and, far back in time, the days when you presided over the “Intelligencer” with your friend Patterson--not him, though, surnamed “Billy,” about whom the world is still so anxiously putting the question, “who struck him.”

Softly! Perhaps, in raking among the ashes of the past, I have disturbed the grave of some long since buried hope, or resurrected some ambition remembered but as a fitful dream, or perhaps I have dug up some memento hidden that it might be forgotten, bringing only sorrow with its recollection! Peace be with thee and thine, “Tom Owen.” May your shadow never grow less, and may you live a thousand years to hold the reins with the “Senior” over the true “Spirit” team.

Have you forgotten your friend W--, who gave you the “wrinkles” about turkey-hunting and arrow-fishing? If so, turn to the “Hive of the Bee Hunter,” and there you will find his “pictur,” as he reclines with his rifle behind a log, his eye intent on the turkey strutting in the distance. W-- was a bachelor then, a hunter, fisherman, philosopher, a picker up of small pebbles, and lived in a “shanty.” Now he is a married man, turns his attention to “revenue,” and is the independent proprietor of a two-story house with paint on it. He still keeps in order his rifle and fishing tackle, though all game has long since disappeared from his neighborhood, and a six-inch sucker looks to him “very like a whale.” He tells me to say to you that his fighting weight is now two hundred and fifty pounds, and still growing.
Notes:

Source: New York Spirit of the Times 30.19 (16 June1860): 217-18. University of Virginia Alderman Library.

Erin Bartels prepared this typescript.

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