Shotgun John by James L. Bruner
While the limbs of the weathered apple tree held us firmly in place we each plucked an apple and let the cradle of comfort pull conversation from once silent thoughts. I began with the story of Shotgun John as my daughter closed her eyes and rested firmly amongst the limbs with mottled rays of sunlight dancing about her face. Intently she listened while munching on a freshly picked apple.
John got his nickname just like every other urban legend that had been passed down through the years with bits and pieces omitted and a spattering of color added here and there for an evolving story. And like any artists canvas the rendering of Shotgun John grew far and wide enough to spread fear amongst the locals who spoke quickly but softly about the man in the dilapidated old shack.
It all started many years ago when a group of young fishermen decided to investigate the small spring-fed stream that meandered through John’s property leading the young men right past John’s front door. Chaos ensued as John appeared on the old wooden porch, shotgun in hand, touching off shells like a crazed madman protecting his domain before going out in a hail of bullets and fallen glory. At least that’s how the legend was told and the exact reason why nobody dared set foot on John’s land much less ever think about talking with him. After all who can speak to a red-eyed-demon toting a shotgun who had enough swampy property to dispose of just about anything he didn’t want found. I don’t know if it was the fact that I didn’t believe the stories or I found that John sounded a lot like myself and just desired some peace and quiet. Either way I decided to find out since I was also interested in this cool deep stream that peaked my interest of some native brook trout fishing.
A short drive of two miles and I was pulling into John’s driveway which is a sloping dirt road leading directly to his small shack which was in desperate need of repairs. Moss grew heavy on the sagging roof and the scent of decaying forest hung thick in the air. I couldn’t help but feel a bit apprehensive as the stories of old crept into my mind. As I approached his shack I took note of the porch which was missing as many boards as those that were still visibly rotting away. Each had that slippery sheen that lends itself to a constant state of denial and upkeep. I noticed a bottle of vodka setting on the porch that had lost half a battle to someone who took an adequate indulgence in the flavorful notes of the crystal liquid. For reasons unknown, not being a drinker, I hefted the bottle of vodka and concentrated on the foreign label that appeared to be imported from Russia. It was at that moment when a hulking man in a tattered white t-shirt appeared in the doorway with a commanding voice asking who the hell I was.
For a moment I felt hollow as his voice echoed through the woods. My feet, seemingly glued to the ground, would have been of little use if the demon decided to wield that legendary shotgun in my direction. At a loss for words I simply turned the bottle of vodka towards him and pointed to the label while mustering the strength to speak that this must indeed be some superior sipping material. John swung in one motion grabbing the bottle from my hands as he turned and disappeared back inside his shack without saying a word. My senses came alive yet I hesitated to speak as I focused on the ruckus that was now taking place inside the shack beyond my curious eyeballs. Honestly, thinking back, I was listening for anything that sounded like a gun loading. Instead, John appeared back in the doorway with two dusty glasses and a brand new bottle of vodka. Without speaking a word John found a solid board on the porch and poured a sip into each glass and set the bottle down. Although I felt somewhat obliged I simply pushed mine to the side with a No Thanks. John disappeared back inside his shack and I figured my rejection of the drink was probably received as an insult.
My ears once again perked up as more noise reverberated from the shack and John appeared back on the porch with two big cigars that were wrapped in a gold foil that also looked imported. It was at that point, with the sweet scent of the stogies hovering in the air while overlooking the little stream, that I introduced myself.
After some small talk I couldn’t help but ask about the legendary story of the wildman with the shotgun. John let out a thunderous laugh that seemed to fade into the distance. Reserved but seemingly interested in sharing John peered over his wire rimmed glasses and told the story. To my surprise most was confirmed as the story had been told with the exception of the glowing red eyes of course. He explained that if he scared the kids enough then maybe people would stop trespassing on his property. He was happy to report that the plan had worked up until now. The remark caught my attention as he went on to say that I was the first person to stop by his place in the last 7 years. And, the last people that stopped were only there because their vehicle had broken down. As he once again filled his glass with vodka a plume of cigar smoke encircled his face. He looked me straight in the eye and said those people are buried out back and followed the comment with a brief sinister laugh.
It was clearly apparent that John was quite a character with a refined sense of humor and not some crazy hermit as he had been so wrongly labeled. In fact it didn’t take long to realize that John was well above the average in the IQ department. He was proficient in seven different languages and could bring a story to life in descriptive vocabulary that typically one would expect from a worldly scholar descended from the highest of educational achievements. He made punctuated claims to adhere stringently upon rules and gestures set forth by our greatest leaders. Yet, even in desperation, he could only narrowly manage the minimal task of orchestrating a suitable breakfast at the dawn of each new day. Everyone has their faults. I found myself completely immersed in John’s stories of the old country and the loss of his family.
At this point I’m feeling like a book left abandoned by the literary roadside where pages falter like a sentence with a poorly placed exclamation point. I divert the conversation back to the stream and my interest in trout fishing. John’s attention peaks at the mention of fishing as he pours another glass of vodka and tells me of a dam he has on the stream. A dam that he built with the help of the DNR just below the spring where the stream begins. One that’s filled with polished stone where the water runs cold to the touch even in the heat of summer. Where the native brook trout lay in the current and take refuge in the undercut banks at the first sign of trouble. At this point John, moving faster than ever, disappears back inside the shack and returns with some papers.
John explains that the dam has weathered through the years and he holds in his hand a valid permit to fix the dam. He goes on to say that the repairs will require two people and, if I was willing to help with the repairs, I could fish the entire creek at my leisure. My eyes must have started shining like diamond on a blanket of fresh snow and John recognized my interest. We made the plan to tackle the job in early spring just as the snow began to melt. With that John poured another drink of vodka, raised his glass in my direction, and we bid farewell.
I never spoke with or visited John through the winter. In early spring I showed up at the old shack to visit John with my boots in hand just in case he was ready to fix the dam. But something was different. The shack was empty with no signs of life with the exception of fresh tire tracks in the driveway. I thought I had missed John while he was away on one of his rare trips to town. As I was about to leave a vehicle pulled down the driveway and I approached the car with a smile. A woman appeared from the drivers seat asking what I was doing. Before I could answer she darted to the trunk of her car and retrieved a for sale sign. As the memory of smoking cigars on the old porch began flashing through my mind the woman asked if I had known John. I explained yes. Sort of. She remarked that it was too bad he died a lonely man.
As reality set in I glanced back at the old shack and noticed a familiar bottle resting peacefully on the porch. I don’t think John died a lonely man. In fact, ma’m, I think he passed in peace.
With the last sentence of my story complete a half-eaten apple falls from my daughters tiny hand and plops to the ground. I realize she has fallen asleep and maybe moments like these are more for myself than for her. Maybe. Just maybe with age it sometimes comes with surprise when you realize the majority of your childhood was spent dreaming of faraway lands. And with that age also comes the dream of being a child once again, back home, in a familiar apple tree, where the dreams began.