A game warden's lesson is a Christmas blessing

Len Lisenbee

SUM GRAF: The story of Asa McAllister is an example of the spirit of the season

The Christmas season is a special time for me. I find it to be a good time for remembering all the good things of days long past.

Sometimes my thoughts dwell on places I once visited. But more often it's the good people I have had the pleasure of meeting who stand out clearest in my memory. This is the story of one such person.

Len Lisenbee

His name was Asa McAllister, and he was a game warden who took his job very seriously. He had a knack for knowing what most of the local outlaws were planning to do, sometimes even before they knew it themselves. His reputation was such that more than one local poacher, when seeing Asa approaching, blurted out a confession for some recent crime against nature when the warden only intended to pass a few minutes in friendly conversation.

Yes sir, Asa was plenty good at what he did. A real crusty old game warden. He knew every poacher and game hog living within a hundred miles, and they all knew him, too. To the man they called him the meanest, sneakiest, yet fairest, game warden ever to slide into a pair of hip boots. And to the man, they knew if he caught up with them when they were committing some crime they were in for a hard fall.

He never gave a break to anyone. No sir, no free passes for a game outlaw, ever!

Asa was a good man. He was the father of four fine, strong kids. He was husband to Maggie for many wonderful years. Heck, he spent his entire life living in and around that tiny mountain village of Orchard Creek.

He was a good provider who lived in a happy home. And he was a proud man, proud of what he had done with his life, both as a husband and father and as a game warden. He knew about his reputation among the poachers and various other sinners of the woods, and he was proud of that, too.

Asa was a pioneer of sorts, starting his job in the early part of this century. Those were hard times during some hard years. He started out on horseback, three years before the state issued him a Model A Ford.

For a while he even had to use his own money to put gasoline in that old state car. That was during the Great Depression, although Asa did not see anything great about it. The budget for protecting wild animals was a little thin, seeing how so many people were needing the state's help too.

But he got by, even then. And the job got done, too. It was during those lean years that this story was first told. I never heard who first told it, or when. But still, I remember it well. I'll never forget it. Wouldn't want to!

It seemed that Asa had only one passion that extended past his family life and job. He loved to hunt ruffed grouse. He called them “patridge.” Yes sir, if he wasn't out chasing a poacher or bringing in the winter wood supply, the chances were you could find Asa up in Pumpkin Hollow with his old Model 12 Winchester under his arm and plump tender grouse on his mind.

He didn't care much for deer hunting. He had not even bothered to fill his current deer tag. He didn't plan to, either. Just leave the rifle on the rack this year.

And Pumpkin Hollow is where this story was supposed to have happened. Just a few days before Christmas, I believe. Asa was trying to flush up some partridge from a thornapple thicket when he heard a single shotgun blast from halfway up Moosehorn Knob, off to his left. Probably a squirrel hunter, or maybe another grouse hunter.

But then again, maybe not. So Asa decided to mosey on up there and check it out.

He eased up the side of that hill for a quarter mile. And there, in a clearing right in front of him, he saw young Todd Barrister kneeling on the ground. At Todd's knees was an old single-barrel shotgun and a large tom turkey.

And Todd was crying.

Asa knew the Barrister boy. Heck, he knew the whole Barrister family. Nine kids, and their mom was the hardest working woman he had ever met. Alice Barrister did laundry for the county jail, and sewed dresses for local ladies at night. She also tended a large garden and a small orchard when weather permitted.

Then there was the father of that brood. As mean and no-account as any man could be. Drunk most of the time, and downright nasty all the time. He ran off without a word three years ago. And he left Alice with a whole armload of work.

Asa knew that Todd was a good kid. Always polite, and always as clean as any 12-year-old country boy could be. He was in church every Sunday morning, and always in clothes as neat and tidy as Alice could keep them.

Lord, where did she find the strength? Or the time? Todd had never been in trouble before, either. Asa was sure of that. He would have heard of any trouble.

But there was no turkey season this year. Too few turkeys to hunt. In fact, the state had started a live-trapping program to try and bring them back. They were fully protected by the law, and it was important that no one hunted them right now. The game law had been broken, and someone had to pay for breaking it.

Asa walked out into the clearing and keeled down beside Todd, startling him in the process. The boy didn't speak, but Asa could see the shame and guilt in his eyes, mixed in with all the tears.

Then the boy's stare returned to the turkey and the shotgun. There were more sobs.

“Want to tell me what happened, Todd?”

Asa's voice was gentle. Todd wiped his eyes with his sleeve and once more looked at the warden.

“I heard my mom crying last night, warden. Christmas is just a few days off, and her paycheck went to pay Doc Hollister for Bobby's medicine. There's no money for food for a Christmas dinner. And mom was crying cause she couldn't even buy us kids the new socks she had promised.”

Asa's eyes began to mist. He stood and lifted his face toward Heaven. Then, hiding the knot in his throat, he told Todd to dress out the turkey.

“And be sure you save the giblets for the stuffing,” said Asa.

He also told the boy not to shoot any more turkeys. Then Asa walked on down the hill. He had lost the desire for the day's partridge hunting. Instead he went on home and got his deer rifle.

On Christmas Day there were some strange happenings in Orchard Creek. Alice Barrister found a large dressed-out deer and six plump grouse hanging from a beam on her front porch. She also found a large box with around three dozen pairs of warm socks of all sizes inside.

There was also an envelope with some money in it tied to the leg of the deer.

“Merry Christmas” was all that was written on that envelope.

Judge Brady, the local town justice, found an envelope of his own that morning. Inside was a five dollar bill and a note stating that the fine for one wild turkey, shot out of season, was enclosed. No name. Just the money and the note.

The McAllister household had their usual happy Christmas. Maggie fixed a fine meal, and the kids enjoyed their presents. And Asa was happy, too. Anyone could tell that just by looking at the quiet smile on his face.

I'm not sure if this story is completely true or not. Asa's been gone now for quite a few years, and he wouldn't talk about it while he was alive. There's another crusty young game warden in the area, Todd Barrister, but he won't talk about it either.

And then again, the story's been told and retold so many times that the facts may have become somewhat blurred.

But that doesn't really matter, does it? The spirit of the season, of one person helping another without thought of reward, that's what is really important. Without it, life loses a lot of its meaning.

And the best part is that the act of giving can take many forms. It can arrive in many vessels. It can even be found living peacefully within the breast of a crusty old game warden.

Merry Christmas, Asa. Merry Christmas everyone, and a Happy New Year to you all.

Len Lisenbee of Potter is the outdoors columnist for The Chronicle-Express' affiliate The Daily Messenger. Contact him at lisenbee@ frontiernet.net