Part 1 of 3 of a turkey-hunting fiction series: "A Voice From The Past"
It was one of those spur-of-the-moment, mostly impulsive things we do every day that seem so insignificant at the time but they turn out to change our lives. I had driven by the pawn shop a million times and never stopped. For some reason, the big sign out front with “Guns” written on it in black letters grabbed my attention that day. I pulled into the small strip center and went inside the shop. There were a few pistols in the glass case and a few other over-priced items but nothing I would spend money on. Then I saw it. It was standing up in the back gun case with several rifles and it just sort of jumped out at me. I can’t tell you why. Maybe it was because I had hunted squirrels with one just like it back in my teenage days and I had fond memories of using it.
It was a non-descript Stevens single-shot 12-gauge Model 94 shotgun with a hammer. My best friend Mason Phillips had owned one just like it when we were in high school. Before that it had been his grandfather’s. I asked the man behind the counter if I could look at it. He grabbed it and handed it to me. It had an old weathered brown rubber recoil pad that had long since seen its better day. The stock and barrel had been coated with some kind of ancient green paint that was almost worn off. It had a little rust on the barrel and trigger guard, but the bore looked surprising clean.
“I reckon a turkey hunter must’ve owned it at one time what with the green paint on it and all,” the owner of the store said.
“I wonder how many turkeys it’s killed in its time,” I said.
“If it could talk it might just up an’ tell you,” the man said.
That really got my attention. I’d always loved to daydream about old rifles and shotguns of yesteryear and tried to imagine the hunters who might have used them. Little could I imagine at that moment the words spoken by a man who wanted to sell me something would indeed become prophetic. This shotgun would talk to me, and it would eventually reveal a story that was as incredible as anything I had ever heard.
I thought about how bad Mason’s gun had kicked when we used to hunt squirrels with it. Lord that thing punished my shoulder when I was 16. Mason went to Viet Nam in ’68 about a year after we got out of high school. He didn’t make it back. I don’t know what became of his gun collection, but this shotgun certainly brought back some memories.
“How much?” I asked.
“I’m asking $90 but I’ll make you a deal.”
I don’t know what got into me. I already owned two good automatic shotguns that were excellent turkey guns. “How about $70?” I asked.
I’ll take $80 but that’s as low as I’m gonna go,” the man said.
“I’ll give you $70 right now,” I said. “Cash.”
“For cash money it’s yours,” the man said. “You just bought yourself a classic turkey gun.”
I walked out of the pawn shop toting the old Stevens over my shoulder. As I got in my truck and drove off, I began to wonder if I had lost my senses. What in the world had gotten into me? Why did I buy a beat-up old shotgun that I would probably never use? “You’re way too sentimental,” I told myself. Or maybe I was just plain dumb. “A classic turkey gun?” I repeated. “yeah… right…”
• • •
When I got home that evening I wiped down the old gun with an oil rag and leaned it against the gun case. I was pretty busy for the next few days, but when Saturday morning rolled around I grabbed it and sat down in the den to give it a good looking over. The first thing I noticed was the lack of a serial number. Strange… I was sure most old Stevens shotguns had serial numbers. I happened to have a few old Gun Traders guides and several Gun Digests, so I looked it up. I learned that Stevens had started its very popular line of shotguns in the late 1800s. Then I was surprised to read that only after 1968 did serial numbers appear on the venerable old Model 94s. All those made from 1929 to 1968 had no numbers.
“So… this gun was made before 1968. It’s older than I thought.”
The brown rubber recoil pad was cracked and discolored, but it had probably helped a little with the recoil. I knew if I slid it off it might start to break apart, but something compelled me to carefully work it off the butt of the stock without doing too much damage. I figured it had probably been in place for decades.
I noticed right away the standard butt plate, either steel or hard plastic depending on the year it was made, had long ago been replaced with a hand-fashioned 3/4-inch butt plate made of some type of hard rubber. This rubber plate had probably been attached to the stock as an added recoil pad. Closer examination revealed this homemade recoil pad was made from what looked like black rubber from an old car tire. Whoever had made it and placed it on the butt of the gun had done an excellent job. It had been carefully cut to fit the end of the walnut stock almost perfectly. It was screwed in with two screws. Even though the rubber had hardened with age, I noticed some small, faded white letters someone apparently had painted across the center of the butt plate. I thought it might be someone’s name, but closer study revealed two faded words: “look inside.”
Now things were getting interesting. I wondered what could be inside the stock of my new “mystery gun.” I grabbed a screwdriver and unscrewed the two heavy-duty screws with considerable difficulty. I pried the hard rubber pad off and I could see that someone had hollowed out a small one-inch-wide cavity inside the stock much like some of the old mountain men often did with their Hawken rifles. Inside the cavity they would store important and valuable items like extra caps or flints and maybe even a small gold coin or two for safe keeping.
I looked down into the hole and saw several old stick matches wrapped in a piece of paper. That made sense. A man alone in the woods never knew when a warm fire might be of great comfort or actually save his life. I slid the rolled-up matches out of the cavity and took them out of the paper holding them together. I fished out the five or six matches and noticed the discolored paper holding them was folded over and something was written on the inside. Could this be some kind of note left by the gun’s former owner? I carefully unfolded it and held it up to the light. Yes, it was a handwritten note. It was written out in tiny, neat block letters and some of the words were misspelled. At the top it said:
“To who it may concern,
I’m a little older, not much wiser, my skin has got a little thicker, and a little more wrinkled but I lived a mighty good life and I can see the writing on the wall. Someday this old gun won’t be mine any longer and when that day comes I want whoever ends up with it to know I killed 49 gobblers with it in 49 years – from 1947 to 1996. Woulda made it 50 but I busted my leg up in ’97 and couldn’t hunt. Also killed 16 deer, one bear and I cain’t tell you how many squirrals and rabbits and quale with this ol’ gun. She’s been a good friend to me thru thick an thin, an she’ll be a good friend to you. Oh I know she ain’t much to look at these days, what with all the new guns out there, but treat her with respect an’ she’ll do ya proud like she done me all these years. She don’t need much other than a little gun oil and a barrel cleaning once in a while. When it comes to drawin’ down on a woods-smart ol’ gobbler, she’ knows how to get ’er done ever’ time. Maybe she ain’t the prettiest but she shoots awful good and she’ll bring down whatever yer aimin’ at. Remember this… she’s got plenty more birds to kill long after I’m gone, so take ’er out and let ’er do what she was made to do. If ya give ’er half a chance, she’ll not let ya down.”
The note was signed, “Tom Dixon -1998”
At the bottom of the note in the margin was an ink drawing. At first, I couldn’t make out what it was. But after studying it carefully I realized it was a sketch of a home-made box call. Cold chills ran down my back. The whole thing was bizarre. I sat there and read the note several times. Then I went back over the chain of events that had occurred up to this point.
On an impulse, I had stopped at a pawn shop and bought an old shotgun I had no use for. Through a strange twist, I found a note inside written by a man who probably was long dead. But there was no doubt he had been a seasoned turkey hunter who had plied his trade for nearly 50 years. That in itself was amazing.
A man named Tom Dixon had written this note at least 20 years earlier and he obviously hunted with an old box call that he probably made himself. He had owned this gun since before I was born. But who was this Tom Dixon? Where was he from? Forty-nine gobblers in 49 years? That was quite a record for anyone. He must have been some kind of turkey hunter. If he was that good, someone had to know about him.
I held the old shotgun in my hands with a new respect and realized that in a roundabout way and for reasons I could not understand I had become part of a long-forgotten story that was crying out to be told. Just like the pawn shop owner had jokingly mentioned, the gun in fact did have a story to tell.
“Well Mr. Tom Dixon, I don’t know who you are, but I plan to find out,” I said out loud.
Something caused me to think about the movie Jeremiah Johnson with Robert Redford and the scene where his character had stumbled upon the frozen carcass of Hatchet Jack, a famous real-life mountain man in the Rockies, and how Hatchet Jack had left a note pinned to his coat saying the bear he had killed had killed him and that his cherished gun would become the property of anyone who found it.
That note read:
“I, Hatchet Jack, being of sound mind and broke legs, do hereby leaveth my bear rifle to whatever finds it. It is a good rifle, and killt the bear that killt me. Anyway, I am dead. Yours truly, Hatchet Jack.”
Jeremiah Johnson had pried the gun loose from old Hatchet Jack’s frozen fingers and kept it as his own. (That scene was based on a true experience with the real-life mountain man for whom the movie was modeled, John “Liver-Eating” Johnson. The real Johnson actually found Hatchet Jack Kelly’s rifle as portrayed in the movie.)
“Mr. Tom Dixon, you obviously knew your way around in the woods,” I said out loud, shaking my head. “But of all the turkey hunters in Georgia, why did you have to choose me?”
• • •
I called the pawn shop owner to find out if he could tell me who had sold him the shotgun. He said he would have to look up his records and he’d call me back. An hour later the phone rang. He said an older man named Archie Phillips brought it in with several old pistols and said he’d owned it a long time. He gave me an address listed in Ludiwici, GA. Boy did I know that little town. Years ago it was known as the speed-trap capital of Georgia. As a teenager, I had often deer and hog hunted Fort Stewart and the surrounding area with several high school friends and their fathers, and in those days, Ludiwici had rightly earned it reputation.
The pawn shop owner had a phone number for Archie Phillips, and he gave it to me. “Let me know what you find out,” he said. “You’ve really got my curiosity up now.” I dialed the number. No answer. I kept dialing it for two days. Finally on the second night someone picked up.
“Archie Phillips, here.”
“Mr. Phillips, er, my name is Steve Jackson. This is kind of crazy, but the other day I bought an old Stevens single-shot shotgun that you sold to a pawn shop in Brunswick and I’m trying to track down the man who once owned the gun before you did. His name was Tom Dixon. Can you shed any light on where I might locate Mr. Dixon?”
There was a long silence.
“How do you know his name?”
“Actually I found a note inside the gun under the butt stock. Apparently Mr. Dixon was quite a turkey hunter and he killed a lot of turkeys with that old shotgun. I’m trying to find out a little more about him. Does the name ring a bell?”
“I knew somebody had to be a turkey hunter the way that gun was painted,” Archie said. “You ain’t no federal man are you? I sold that gun legal and proper.”
“No, no, Mr. Phillips. I’m just a turkey hunter myself who happened to buy that gun and now I’m trying to find out a little about the man who once owned it. His note said he killed 49 gobblers with it in 49 years, from 1947 to 1996, and that’s quite a record. I’d just like to find out where he was from and where he killed all those turkeys.”
“I wish I could help ya’, but I don’t really know nothin’ about the gun. I traded with a man for it up near Augusta about 20 years ago. I was at a little country store outside of Waynesboro but it closed down about 10 years ago. This fella had a few old guns for sale in the trunk of his car. Young fella in his 30s. Local boy. He was some kind of dealer an ever’body knew him. He seemed to be on the up an’ up so I bought that old shotgun and didn’t pay hardly nothin’ for it. I don’t know why I bought it. There was just somethin’ about it that drew me to it. I don’t think I ever shot it a single time. You say there was a note inside it?”
“Yes, the previous owner left a note underneath the butt plate and his name was Tom Dixon. I’d like to try to find out where he was from. Tell me something… Since Mr. Dixon’s note said he killed his first turkey with the gun in 1947, were there many turkeys around Waynesboro back in the late 1940s?”
Yesiree, there was plenty in Burke County back then, especially over by the river. I used to hear people talkin’ about huntin’ ’em there all the time. I believe they even trapped a bunch outa Burke County when they started restockin’ ’em in other areas around the state.”
“So Mr. Dixon could have hunted turkeys in Burke County back in those days?”
“Yesiree, lots a people hunted ’em in those days, but some of that country over by the river is awful swampy and hard to hunt.”
Thank you, Mr. Phillips. You’ve been a big help. Just one other thing… You said you didn’t know why you bought that gun when you did. What made you buy it then?”
“Beats me,” he said. “There was just something about it that made me want to buy it. Maybe it was that green paint. I don’t know…”
After we hung up I smiled. Just like Mr. Phillips, something had made me want to buy the old gun, too, and neither of us could quite put our finger on it. I picked up one of the old stick matches and wondered if it would still work. I leaned over and scraped it across one of the rocks on my rock fireplace. It quickly came to life with a sizzle. I held it straight up and studied the flame. After the match had burned halfway down the stick, I blew it out. I watched the thin line of black smoke dissipate in the room.
I knew there were two things I had to do: I had to find out who Mr. Tom Dixon was, and come turkey season in a few weeks, I had to kill a gobbler with his shotgun. I couldn’t say why, but somehow the turkey hunting gods had appointed me to put the 50th notch on that old shotgun as a tribute to Mr. Dixon. I smiled again. “Been a long time since I hunted with one like this, but it can’t kick worse than my 3 1/2-inch magnum!”
Other Articles You Might Enjoy