There is one sheet of paper from one of those yellow pads that I must have had with me when I talked with Mr. Jesse Burroughs just before he died. The colorful old Kemper County man had plenty of turkey stories and those around him had even more stories that involved Mr. Jesse. My notes about him are, as usual, unclear, yielding just snippets of information. But among my incomplete scribblings are at least the remnants of Mr. Jesse’s great stories.
To appreciate Mr. Jesse’s contributions to the body of local wild turkey lore, one must understand that he never seemed able to clarify in his mind the difference between the truth and untruth. And that distinction wouldn’t have mattered to him anyway. I have recorded in previous times stories of his assertions about his deer-hunting exploits, the enormity of his lies being unparalleled in much of human history. It was only during the last years of his life that I learned of his reputation in the turkey woods.
This one tattered note I found provides the following gleanings from a story told to me by Mr. Jesse’s son, James. Jesse was set up and calling a turkey for himself and Mr. Bud (Branning?) of Neshoba County. The two were seated against trees very close together and Mr. Jesse told Bud, “Now Bud, I’ll tell you when to shoot the turkey.” Mr. Jesse was making his wing bone sing.
The gobbler came in on Mr. Bud’s side and Bud cut his eyes toward Jesse and Jesse wagged his head slightly indicating for Bud not to shoot yet. On came the bird and Bud, ready to shoot, again stared at Jesse and got another slow shake of the head.
Mr. Jesse continued to cluck to the strutting tom and signaling Bud to hold his fire. The gobbler walked all the way around to Jesse’s side whereupon Jesse shot and killed it.
Later, to some of their friends, Jesse gave this account of the story. “I called this gobbler right in front of Bud and he just froze up and couldn’t shoot it!”
Bud replied, “Why you big liar! I would look at you and you would keep shaking your head no, no, no. And then you did the shooting!”
My most memorable of his stretching the truth far past the breaking point was back in our old deer camp house when all of us were squeezing in close to the fireplace to keep from freezing and stories of bullet-proof deer were entertaining us. This was back in the days of shotguns-only deer hunting ahead of converted fox hounds, the handiest dogs around as deer moved into East Mississippi and the old fox hunters sought something else to chase.
These were the days of paper shotgun shells, pitiful deer fodder compared with today’s high-tech shells. So it often took a lot of shooting to bring down a buck. Tales of deer flying ahead of the hounds and stoked with adrenalin being hard to bring down were usually embellished in a setting such as ours that day in that old cold camp house.
Mr. Jesse, having arrived late considering his mile-long walk from his house, stood outside the ring of hunters hovering around the fireplace and listened to the chatter. The stiff collar of his usual Mackinaw reached above his ears almost to the scratched-up leather cap as he listened to each tale of how many hunters on their stands shot at the deer in question before it finally was brought down.
A particular exaggeration finally got to him and he sounded forth with his own tale that went like this:
“Why I heard all this shootin’ one day and a deer come by me shot up so bad that I could see trees goin’ by the other side of him through all them holes!”
Remembering Mr. Jesse Burrough’s stories got me to doing some deep thinking. I wondered if we would remember his stories for a long time without his special stamp of incomparability. Could it be that he knew his stories would persist longer if they were enhanced by his outrageous lies, like the episode with Mr. Bud who “froze up” on that Kemper County gobbler?
And maybe even Mr. Jesse’s passing was actually another of his crafty lies. Is he really dead? Sometimes in the Kemper County turkey woods, I think I hear his wingbone “singing.” And sometimes I get a glimpse of him slipping around a briar patch beneath the blooming dogwoods.
Otha Barham is an author and musician. He lives in Meridian.