Authors: Grant Bywaters
I had fetched my Colt 1911 from its resting place in the closet before leaving. Glad to have it, I sat in the boat with a firm grip around it.
JaRoux steered the rudder through the endless maze of channels until the flickering light of the looming cabin presented itself. The lodge was made of wooden logs and elevated off the ground. It had a brick fireplace, tin roof, and a long wooden porch. It was stacked one and a half stories high, with a wooden vertical staircase in the interior that led to a small sleeping loft.
Inside, Zella busied herself boiling an oversized pot over the cast-iron stove. Aunt Betty sat in the far corner, saying nothing as we came in.
“It's about time you showed up,” Zella said, looking up from her cooking. “Was beginnin' to think you went off and left us here for good.”
“Why would I do that, and miss Aunt Betty's welcoming charm?”
“Be nice,” she said. “She's taking it the best she can. I'll confess, she was being a pain at first, but after Mr. JaRoux threatened to feed her to his pet gator if she didn't stop the complainin', she's been nice and hush, ain't that right, Aunt Betty?”
Aunt Betty said nothing.
“What are you cooking anyways?” I asked.
“A gumbo recipe JaRoux is havin' me do.”
I looked at JaRoux. “We ain't goin' to be having our food flopping all over the table, are we?”
JaRoux grinned. “Naw, it's all dead.”
I helped set the French cherrywood dining table for the impending grub pile. Once the stew had finished its boiling, we wasted no time buzzing around the barrel. Aunt Betty ate little, which left more for the rest of us.
A mixture of fresh shrimp and okra, the gumbo tasted a cut above the garbage you'd get at the ritzy slophouses in town.
“So, how did you two meet, anyway?” Zella asked.
JaRoux answered. “A few years back some moonshine was coming out this swamp. Was no big deal, cuz it's a common thing out here. But this stuff was pure poison. Made its way into the city and killed a few folks. So Mr. Fletcher here comes to my bait shop asking if I know anything about it. I reckon he was workin' a case on itâ¦”
JaRoux was half right. It was Brawley that had asked me to look into it.
“I told him that I didn't know much, but heard rumors of an area of swamp that was being guarded by a couple armed men that meant business. So with a little exchange of money, I take him out there, and we get shot at for our troubles. But I knew another way to get out there that whoever was guarding the area didn't know about. So we come back later that night armed with some rifles, and track our way to this camp. The moonshiners were a group of roughnecks that were using old car radiators to make the shine. That's what was killing folks, it was leaching out lead. We watch them for a bit, and leave, and the next evening the place gets raided by the police.”
I had given Brawley a detailed map of how to get out there, along with how many men there were and who was armed. It was a cinch raid that got Brawley and his unit on the front page with a headline in boldface type that read, “Police Clearing Out the Swamp!”
We had finished the stew when a hissing sound came to the front door. Aunt Betty snapped out of her stupor and in a fright said, “You aren't bringing that monster in here again!”
“Darla ain't no monster,” JaRoux said. “Don't be callin' her that neither. Don't want to make her mad, do you?”
Aunt Betty said nothing. JaRoux got up and took a wrapped chunk of raw meat out of the cooler. I trailed behind him to the front door. Waiting just beyond the doorway was Darla, who happened to be a ten-foot alligator. Her round snout hovered in the air, sniffing, while her adjacent eyes watched as we approached.
JaRoux tossed the lump of meat at her and in a vicious snap of the jaw she devoured it whole. It was a prehistoric sight.
“That's some girlfriend you got there, Ken.”
“Darla's a good girl,” JaRoux said. “I had her since she was just a baby. She comes and sees me all the time now. Trouble is them bull gators start getting mighty jealous. You can hear them roar sometimes when she's here.”
“You best be careful,” I said. “They may take one of your limbs off to impress her one of these days.”
“Don't I know it,” JaRoux said.
JaRoux and I went back into the cabin where Zella had cleared up the last of the dishes. For the rest of the evening I showed Zella how to play cards. I started her with a simple game, blackjack. She proved to be both an apt learner and lucky. She did what most beginners did at first, and went bust with too many cards, but a few hands into it she stayed with aces and jacks, often resulting in a “push” from JaRoux or me, who were playing dealer.
Afterwards, we set out to retire for the evening. JaRoux loaded up the potbelly stove with wood to keep the cooling shack warm for the night. Aunt Betty went to sleep in the downstairs sleeping quarters and Zella took to the upstairs loft. I slept on the floor and JaRoux did likewise on the other side of the room.
The next morning I woke up early with JaRoux and we went out fishing. He caught a freshwater drum while I myself caught nothing. I hadn't gone fishing in a long while and I was in no real hurry to get back to the mainland. I wanted Mallon to sit and stew a bit in the knowledge of what I knew. This would cause him to become bolder, making his actions easier to spot. There was a flip side to it of course. A desperate man was also a more dangerous one.
In the afternoon I walked with Zella on the upland. She did most of the talking. She asked about the plants and what bird was that. At times she came off like a little girl. It made me wonder if that was who she was at her core. A little girl looking for her daddy.
I diverted such thoughts and let myself enjoy the weather. There would be fewer and fewer days like this. Winter would start rearing its ugly head soon. A ways into the hike, we rested on a log in front of a small brook.
“This reminds me,” Zella said, “of the time that I let this boy take me on what I thought was a romantic picnic in the country.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“He drove me out to this secluded spot in the country; it was very beautiful. I set out fixing the picnic we brought, when I turned around and saw that he had stripped down to nothing but his boots.”
“I reckon you didn't like that.”
“You better believe it. We got into a fantastic row, and I demanded he take me home. I was very young then and I was mostly sore because he took advantage of my naÃ¯veness to make a goat out of me. He wasn't planning on having a romantic picnic, he just wanted to tap my virginity. I learned real fast that's what all you boys want. Ain't it?”
“I guess,” I said.
She gave me a quizzical look and I diverted it with a “Look there.”
Zella shifted her attention to where I was pointing. Across the creek a raccoon came out of the clearing. His eyes were covered in black coloring and dark rings that went down to his bushy tail.
“He's adorable,” Zella said.
I took out the Colt, which I had taken with me, and said, “Want me to see if I can shoot it?”
Horrified, she asked, “Why would I want you to do that?”
“JaRoux is real good at skinning. He could maybe make you a nice scarf out of that fur.”
I laughed. “Yet you don't got a problem wearing fur. Or did you think them minks donated their fur?”
“It was a gift,” she protested.
“You still wear it, don't you?”
She stood up, gave me her back, and said nothing to me the entire way to the cabin. Or at dinner that evening. Afterward, me and JaRoux sat and played cards. JaRoux had brought out his bottle of dark Jamaican rum and, through much enticing on his end, I aided him in emptying its contents. I retired early while JaRoux said he would stay up and watch over the fort before retiring himself.
The alcohol-induced sleep had been swift. I dreamt of nothing except the feeling that something was hitting me in the ribs. I didn't like it, and I reached out to whatever it was in an attempt to kill it.
The sound of JaRoux shouting stirred me and I awoke to the sight of me clutching his foot. I let go and JaRoux regained his balance.
“Didn't mean to disturb you, boss. I just thought you'd want to know there is someone moving around out front.”
I got to my feet as my back shouted out in agony from sleeping on the hard wooden floor. I retrieved my Colt from the canvas pack I'd taken and followed JaRoux to the front window.
It took a moment for my pupils to focus in on the obscurity that was just beyond the window. With no moon, only vague silhouettes could be glimpsed in the darkness.
JaRoux had placed his M-69A bolt-action .22 rifle just to the side of the sill. He now anxiously held on to it.
“You think he's still out there?” I asked.
JaRoux didn't say anything, but my inquiry got answered brusquely by a shot colliding into the window and littering both of us with shards of glass.
The shot had roused Zella and Aunt Betty from their slumber. I told them to stay down and out of sight as I took to the other side of the window. JaRoux busted out the remaining fragments of glass with the butt of his rifle and used the sill to rest the barrel on in an aiming position.
I rechecked the magazine of the Colt. It had seven bullets in the clip and one in the firing chamber. I deactivated the gun's manual safety and crouched low to the window. The second shot went straight through the window and into the back wall. JaRoux returned fire but it was a futile attempt. Whoever it was, they were using the lack of visibility to their advantage.
I moved from the window to the back wall. There was a small hatch used to toss kindling into the house. I opened the hatch and launched myself through the narrow opening.
Once outside, I moved, crouching, through the thick underbrush of hackberries until I hid behind a cluster of greenbriers and switch cane. The spot allowed me to look to the front of the cabin from the side. With rod in hand, I waited for my quarry to show itself.
He did, by firing another discharge into the cabin. Close enough to hear the exiting blast, I sent a horde of bullets in the shooter's direction. The jungle went silent. I waited. My head throbbed and my mind was still distorted from the drinking.
I waited until my patience lapsed. Every instinct told me to wait longer, but I ignored it and set out in the direction I had shot at. A dim-witted move. No sooner had I given up my position, the sound of an inbound shot rung out, and a jagged pain penetrated my left side.
I emptied the remainder of the clip into the darkness ahead and fell to my knees. Blood dispensed from me like a fountain of death. What a fool I'd become. Getting shot for ten dollars a day, a fee I hadn't even collected yet. There was nothing romantic about being the hero doing this job. Heroes get put into obituaries or have small postmortem write-ups praising them, only to be forgotten about by the next edition.
I laughed at what a sucker I had become. I leaned forward from the pain and pile-drived my head into the earth.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The pain was intense, to say the least. I was now in a state of limbo. I wasn't unconscious anymore, but I wasn't really conscious either. Pulled out of the dirt and dragged inside, I'd been put flat out on the table.
JaRoux lingered above me and so did Zella. Where was Aunt Betty? Didn't she want to take part in the late evening festivities? JaRoux came back with a towel and had Zella pressed it down on my side. I didn't see JaRoux again for a while. He came back with an older colored man with bottle-thick glasses. The man yelled for better light as he inspected me.
He cleaned the wound thoroughly and took out a needle and thread. He stuck the tip of the needle to the flame of his lighter and started sewing me back to together like the Frankenstein monster.
The pain escalated to such a scale that I could do nothing but bite down on my own molars until I thought they would splinter. To offset the pain, I clutched on to a bottle of alcohol cleanser and sent it on its way across the room. The sound of it shattering made me feel better. At least I wasn't the only thing broken now.
When he got done sewing me up, he dressed the wound, gave Januzzi and Zella some kind of instructions, and left.
Zella tried to give me comforting looks the whole time, but it only annoyed and disgusted me. Anger swelled up. I tried to push her out of my sight, but didn't have the strength. I couldn't even look away. My body was useless, and so was I.
I opened my eyes to an empty room. They must have moved me to the bed at some point. I did not have strength to even prop myself up. I could only stare up at the ceiling until the door opened and JaRoux stepped in next to me.
“Glad to see you've finally wakened, boss. You've been out of it for four days. You had a bad fever, but it's over now.”
Zella came into the room as well. She tried to wash me down, saw the look on my face and thought better of it.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” she asked.
“How about getting me a cigarette?”
When she left to do so, JaRoux smiled.
“She's been watching over you the entire time. Told her to stop fussing over you, because I know you don't like it much.”
“You know me too well, Ken. Who was the man that fixed me up?” I asked.
“Oh, he's a local around here. Used to do medical work till some whites blew his clinic up. He had enough dough that he just hid out in the swamps, not wantin' to be bothered. Said you were lucky. You were hit with a rifle shot, and it was fast enough to go straight through you without hitting anything serious. Biggest worry was infection and the amount of blood you lost.”
“Maybe that's why I feel two pints low about now,” I said. “What happened to our unwanted visitor?”