TRUE STORIES OF THE MAINE WARDEN SERVICE

THE TURKEY LANE STANDOFF

By Daren Worcester

“I’ve got a good feeling about tonight,” Warden Nat Berry said as he pulled the olive-drab parachute over the hood of his department cruiser, rendering it nearly invisible.

“What makes you say that?” Deputy Warden Charlie Rice asked. He was tugging the parachute over the car’s trunk. “We haven’t seen anything all week.”

“Tonight is different.” Nat unzipped his red wool overcoat. It was warmer than he thought it would be for nine o’clock on a late October evening in 1978, even with the gentle breeze billowing the parachute’s flaps. With temperatures in the mid-forties, poachers could cruise around with the windows open, and the nearly-full moon blanketing the field in a blueish hue made it possible to sight-in deer without a spotlight.

“Call it warden intuition,” Nat said.

“Is that so? You think we’ll see your buddy?”

Nat cracked a smile. “Which buddy would that be? I’ve been making a lot of friends in this job.”

“The one with the badge and the police cruiser.”

Nat’s smile gave way to an exasperated sigh. “Jeez, I hope not.”

They were working an abandoned farm on Turkey Lane in Cumberland, and the rolling fields around the property were a known night-hunting hotspot for locals and, Nat had reason to believe, one of Cumberland’s finest. It wasn’t unheard of for police to violate Maine’s game laws. More often than not, it was Massachusetts police officers vacationing in Maine, who seemed to believe they were above the law. Like many poachers, they were simply out for a cheap thrill, and it wasn’t their state, so what did it matter? Which made it more disheartening when the local police weren’t respecting the wardens’ business.   

“You still haven’t given me the full story,” Charlie said.

“What you have to understand is,” Nat said, still stewing on the thought, “he’s not a bad guy. He’s come to our aid on more than one occasion.”

Left to wonder if he’d done the right thing, the confrontation kept replaying in Nat’s mind. He had been working the same farm they were at tonight; except, on that evening he parked on the other side of the road and backed into the woods at a hairpin turn. From there, he had a good view of vehicles coming from either direction. It was overcast, so he hadn’t bothered with the parachute. Scouting for night hunters was typically a two-man job for safety, but for whatever reason, Nat was alone. After a couple hours of waiting, a car approached from the opposite direction of the farm. It wasn’t going much faster than a tractor, and as soon as it got alongside the field, a spotlight came on.

A jolt of anxious excitement struck Nat. It felt like he was a kid stepping into the batter’s box, ready to swing for the fences. The car made the slow hairpin turn, and as it passed in front of him, Nat realized it was a Cumberland police cruiser.

“Son of a….” Nat started his car and squeezed the steering wheel tight as he watched the car illuminate the other side of the field. “What’s he doing?”

It’s illegal in Maine to light a field at night between September 1 and December 15. The dates cover the extended deer hunting season for archery and muzzleloaders, and the purpose of the law is to give wardens probable cause to stop a vehicle that, in all likelihood, is night hunting. If a gun is found in the vehicle, the occupants can be summonsed for both lighting the field and night hunting. At thirty years old with six years in the Warden Service, Nat had a good mind to summons this officer. He didn’t for a second believe the cop was bold enough to shoot a deer from his cruiser. No, what was more likely is that he was scouting for deer with the intent of returning in the morning during legal hunting hours. But that was beside the point. He was blatantly breaking the law, and in doing so, jeopardizing Nat’s surveillance.

The spotlight went out as the car came to the end of the field—before reaching the house.

That was the last straw.

Nat turned on his emergency lights and stomped on the gas. His back tires dug into the ground and chucked soil as the car fishtailed onto the road. It was a matter of seconds before he’d caught up to the police cruiser, which immediately pulled over. The officer got out and strode confidently toward Nat's vehicle as if he was the one conducting the stop. Fully visible in the glow of Nat’s headlights, the officer was a tall man with a thick waistline and a perfectly buzzed flattop of grayish-white hair.

Nat recognized him immediately: Lee Rockwell, Cumberland’s chief of police.

“Oh boy,” Nat muttered to himself as he quickly got out of his car.

Lee approached Nat with his meaty eyebrows furrowed. A lit cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth.

“Hey, Nat,” Lee said with a newfound smile, reaching out to shake hands.

Nat accepted the shake with a pang of guilt. It felt like a bribe.

“Funny thing running into you tonight,” Lee said, pausing to take a drag of his cigarette. “I didn’t know you were in the area. Why are you pulling me over?”

“I’m sorry, Lee, I don’t see the humor in it. I stopped you because you were spotlighting the field. You know that’s illegal.”

Lee laughed. “Good one, Nat. I didn’t know you were such a ball buster.”

“Lee, I’m serious.”

“You are?” Lee’s smile faded. “Look, Nat, let me make this easy for you because we’ve got a simple misunderstanding here. I’m on patrol. We’ve gotten complaints about people trespassing on the property, so I often come by to take a look.”

“Then why were you lighting the field instead of the house?”

Lee took another puff of his cigarette. “Please, you guys light the fields all the time.”

“You know we’re allowed to.”

“And you know that I have the same authority you do.”

“But it’s not your duty, so that doesn’t make it right.”

“So what?” Lee flicked his cigarette to the ground and stomped it out with his foot. “Are you going to write me up and explain that to a judge?”

Nat was in a real pickle. Lee was correct, he did have the same authority as the wardens, but that didn’t make his behavior legal. It was the equivalent of Lee pulling Nat over for speeding while on his way home from work—just because Nat has the legal right to speed, that doesn’t mean he’s allowed to whenever he wants. But was this really worth pressing the issue? The Warden Service works closely with state and local police departments; citing a chief of police would create tension, not to mention news. Nat took his oath to uphold the state’s game laws seriously, regardless of who was breaking the law, but in this case, the resulting maelstrom wasn’t worth trying to discredit the claim. Even if Nat did press the issue, without shots fired, a judge would likely dismiss the case immediately because there’s no way to disprove Lee’s assertion that he was lighting the field as part of his patrol.

“Well?” Lee wanted to know.

“Not tonight,” Nat conceded.

 

***

 

“That’s a tough one,” Charlie said when Nat finished telling the story. The wardens were standing on opposite sides of the car, each leaning against the parachute-covered hood. “Maybe Lee learned his lesson from your run-in?”

“Let’s hope.”

“Tell me more about this warden intuition,” Charlie said, changing the subject. “Are you sure it’s not indigestion? I saw that rotten cabbage you were eating for lunch.”

Nat laughed. “It’s kimchi, and it’s not rotten, it’s fermented. I’ll bring some in so you can try it.”

“I’m good, thanks.”

The sound of an approaching vehicle ended the conversation. Turkey Lane didn’t get a lot of traffic, especially at night, and this vehicle came around the bend much slower than thru-traffic typically would. It looked to be a car, the headlights were too low to the ground for a truck.

“I told you so,” Nat said.

“Don’t count your chickens—it could be another officer on patrol.”

“That’s not f—”

The car turned onto the farmhouse’s long driveway and started up the hill.

“Take cover!” Nat barked in a hoarse whisper.

The wardens ducked behind the cruiser, which was parked in an open space between the house and the barn, next to a storage shed.  

The car came to a stop close to the barn. When the lights went out Nat could see it was an old white Cadillac. The driver stepped out without killing the engine. A stout man of average height wearing a black business suit, he left the front door ajar as he went to the rear of the vehicle and opened the trunk.

“What’s he doing,” Nat whispered.

“I don’t know,” Charlie replied. “I can’t see.”

Nat leaned out from behind the parachute to get a better view. A sudden gunshot sent him sprawling back.

“What the hell? Did he fire at us?”

“I don’t think so,” Charlie said.

Nat peered around the corner to see the man step out from behind the car with a rifle in his hands. The man turned on a flashlight and started walking toward the field, only to change direction and head for the barn. He fired another shot into the air without aiming the rifle at anything. Was he drunk? Upset? Whatever he was doing, he wasn’t hunting deer—that much was certain. Not by firing haphazard shots into the air. The man disappeared around the other side of the barn. Nat scampered across the front of the barn; he was just getting to the corner when he was frozen by another shot.

Nat peered around the edge. The man was trudging toward him.

“He’s coming,” Nat mouthed to Charlie, who’d crept up behind him. They scampered toward the cruiser, but there wasn’t enough time.

“Hey!” the man shouted as he came around the corner of the barn. Raising his rifle and flashlight together, he took aim at Nat.

Nat drew his .38 pistol on the man. “Game warden,” he yelled. “Drop your weapon!”  

The man didn’t move. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

“Game warden! Drop your weapon!”

“You drop it!” the man shouted back. He wasn’t budging. They were only ten yards apart, close enough for Nat to see the flashlight’s glow shining off the rifle’s front sight. The man was holding the light alongside the barrel, preventing Nat from getting a close look at his face.

Was he squinting to take aim?

“Drop your weapon!” Nat commanded. “I’m a game warden!”

The man didn’t move. Nat’s heart felt like it was going to beat out of his chest. It was all happening so fast. The man had proven to have an itchy trigger finger, so there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t shoot. Nat knew he was out of options. It was this man’s life or his. He had to fire.

“Game warden!” he yelled one last time. “Drop your weapon!”

“Okay,” the man finally replied. He lowered his rifle so that the barrel was pointed at the ground. Nat kept his pistol fixed on the man as he marched over and took the firearm away. It was a semiautomatic .22.

“What are you doing here?” Nat asked as he stepped back from the man and handed Charlie the rifle. He lowered his pistol so that it was aimed off to the side—ready to fix it on the man again if needed.

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” the man said.

“We’re wardens working the field for night hunters,” Nat replied. “Who are you?”

“Wallace Endicott. I own the place.”

“You own the farm?” Nat asked, an incredulous tone in his voice. This was the first farmer he’d met wearing a business suit and polished shoes.  

“That’s right. Bought it this past summer as an investment property.”

“Then why are you shooting all over the place?”

“Vandals,” Wallace said. “They’ve been breaking in and trashing the place, leaving beer cans and all kinds of crap behind for me to clean up. So now I come by every night and fire a few rounds to scare them away.”

“Do you realize how close you came to getting shot?”

Wallace gave a huff. “Do you realize how close you came to getting shot? I’ve fired into the house before when I thought someone was inside.”

“Have you shot anyone?”

He shrugged. “Not that I know of.”

“That’s not very reassuring. You can’t just take the law into your own hands.” Nat thought about the chief of police’s claim that people were trespassing in the area. “Have you reported the break-ins to the police?”

“Once at first, but I don’t see what good it’s done? It’s not like they’re going to fingerprint beer cans to catch a bunch of kids partying.”

“I have it on good authority that the Cumberland Police patrol this road,” Nat said, tongue planted in cheek. “They’ll monitor the house if they know you’re still having problems.” Nat continued to read Wallace the riot act on the severity of the crime should he actually shoot anyone, and then he gave him a break, letting him go with the verbal warnings.

“Tell me,” Charlie said as they watched the white Cadillac back down the driveway. “Did your warden intuition say anything about nearly catching a bullet between the eyes.”

“No,” Nat said, “I didn’t see that one coming. Speaking of which, where were you when he pulled the rifle on me?”

“You could say I had your back.”

“How’s that?”

“I was standing behind you.”

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