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I see the snake slip out from behind a tangle of cypress knees and come side-windin’ toward me, head arched up like a softshell turtle’s, tongue tastin’ the air.
It’s just my luck that he’s a cottonmouth. They come out of winter full of poison and cranky as a drunk man’s dog.
He’s a big boy, fat as a softball at the middle and close to six foot, which is about as big as they get around here. A spring moccasin that big could kill you quick, though not so quick you wouldn’t know you was dyin’.
Once again, I ain’t in a good place, which might not surprise the people who know me. It’s not enough that I’m runnin’ from the law or that I’ve left my boy, Meely, with a broke leg on the roadside to deal with the police. I’m also neck-deep in water, my feet tangled in ooze and a thicket of sunk willow branches.
Runnin’s not an option.
Swimmin’ ain’t either. Stuck up in a low-hangin’ hackberry branch above me is a wasp nest, ’bout as big around as a bushel basket, covered in them big ole red swamp wasps. A man could count to a thousand, maybe two thousand, and not count ’em all, I figger.
You don’t wanna get them things after you. You tangle with ’em out here in a slow, open boat like this one, with no place to run, and you might as well shoot yourself with buckshot.
At least with buckshot it’d be over quick.
See, I had me a clever idea. Me and Chilly had been makin’ pretty good time after we slipped off in the pirogue. Francis Hebert saw our wreck and promised to call the law and get help for Meely and them police that were busted up in that car that was chasin’ us. Francis thinks us LaBauves are made for trouble, so that’s about the one thing—callin’ the law—he might be happy to do for me. I bet he done it cat quick.
For Meely’s sake, I hope he did.
I ain’t heard no boats or sireens but that don’t mean they ain’t comin’.
So me and Chilly paddled away hard till we come upon the entrance of this slough we’re in now. This cut is a secret to most people, the entrance covered by a thicket of swamp maple, gum, and scrub willow. Papa John Prosperie, a trapper I knew way back when, used to trap muskrats back in these waters, before them muskrats got trapped out and them nootras started to take over. He showed it to me one time maybe a dozen years ago. It zigs and zags in a diagonal clear through the heart of the Great Catahoula and I figgered if we could find it and push on through, we’d be hard to spot and save ourselves twenty, thirty miles to where I hope we’re goin’.
I’ve got a particular place in mind, though anywhere outta Catahoula Parish will do.
We were doin’ okay, maybe had put two or three hard miles behind us, when we come upon this wasp nest. The slough’s narrow here and the swamp tangled as a blackberry thicket. That wasp nest ain’t but about three foot off the water and wadn’t no way around it, so I said Logan, just go under it.
I got Chilly to lie down in the pirogue and I covered him up good with a coupla muddy, half-wet gunnysacks and said now, podnah, don’t move till I tell you.
Chilly said Mr. LaBauve, what died in these sacks?
I said frogs, I guess. Crawfish, too. But that’s the only cover I got.
I shucked my huntin’ vest and shirt and boots and socks and slipped out of the pirogue and into the water. It’s as warm and black as tea and smells old as the world. My feet hit oozy bottom and big swamp gas bubbles rose up ’tween my toes. My boy, Meely, calls them ghost bubbles, and I can see why. I’ve took city people to the swamp and they’ve been spooked by them bubbles. Sometimes they just come boilin’ up from the bottom for no reason.
Well, sometimes there’s a reason. Sometimes there’s an ole alligator snappin’ turtle down there, big as a wheelbarrow, sneakin’ along the bottom, blowin’ bubbles. Them things got the spiky shells of a dinosaur and could bite a man’s arm off.
You wouldn’t wanna step on one barefooted.
This slough ain’t but four or five foot deep. My idea was to slip down with just my head above the water, like them gators do, and push the pirogue in front of me real slow till we cleared that nest. Wasps are mean but they ain’t clever.
It was a fine plan till that cottonmouth showed its wedgy head.
I whisper to Chilly, I gotta stop for a second. You just keep holdin’ still.
He says you okay, Mr. LaBauve?
I say I am but I cain’t talk about it now. Just don’t move, okay?
He says don’t worry, I ain’t movin’. I wouldn’t move for nuttin’ in the world.
That snake’s about ten foot from me now and comin’ on slow. I freeze and it’s clear he don’t see me. A moccasin generally won’t attack ’less you step on him or corner him.
A man who’s still is invisible to a snake.
I hold my breath and hope he’ll go ’round the front of the pirogue. And not climb into the boat with poor Chilly.
The cottonmouth slows and raises his head some and then stops, his tongue flickin’ the air again.
I don’t like my position. I got a mosquito on my forehead and an itch in my ear and a crick in my neck and sweat runnin’ down my nose. I’m steppin’ on a branch that’s diggin’ hard into the bottom of my right foot, and I wonder how long I can stay still. But it’s too late to retreat.
The moccasin lifts his cussed head up higher then puts it down. Then he waggles that big tail of his and heads in my direction.
That’s when a frog comes kickin’ right by me, about a foot in front of my eyes. He’s a young marsh frog, about half the size of my hand.
That snake sees the commotion and freezes.
That frog slows down then stops, like maybe he senses somethin’.
The frog just sits there.
The snake just lays there.
I’m wonderin’ how I come up with this plan in the first place. I cain’t just sit here forever.
I suddenly got another plan.
I reach down underwater with my right hand and then bring it up real slow and I poke that frog on the belly.
He jumps high, trailin’ water, right toward the snake.
On his second jump, the cottonmouth practically lifts hisself out of the water and hits that frog in midair. Lightnin’ don’t strike quicker.
The snake lands with a splash about three feet from me.
Pretty soon we’re eye to eye.
I know why people think snakes belong to the devil.
Them eyes are empty and dead to anything we feel.
I try not to blink.
He’s got a mouthful of frog and I feel for that poor frog. His hind legs are stickin’ out of the snake’s mouth, shakin’ like a man with palsy.
I know what this snake wants to do—crawl up on a log someplace and enjoy its breakfast. It comes right at me, thinkin’ maybe I’m the log he’s lookin’ for.
He brushes up against my cheek and smells sour as the swamp.
This won’t do.
I snatch at him hard and get him behind the head and I drag his big ole self down under the water and then I go with him.
I got no choice, if I don’t wanna be swattin’ wasps too.
He’s thrashin’ like a fire hose I once saw get loose. I wonder if I can hold on and I squeeze hard as I can and then I know I’ve made a bad mistake and grabbed him too low.
I feel him turn and somethin’ smashes at my wrist.
I feel the hackles rise on my neck and wait for the burn. When it don’t come I suddenly know he ain’t got me—that his fangs are still buried in that poor frog. I come up quick with my other hand and grab higher, and by the way he whips and shudders I know I’ve got him right behind the head this time.
I start to feel the fire in my lungs and I kick hard, swimmin’ underwater, freein’ up my left hand and searchin’ desperate for the boat. When I feel wood, I bring the snake up and rap his head hard three times against the bottom of the pirogue.
He goes limp, though he’s still heavy as God.
Poor Chilly. I can only imagine what he’s thinkin’.
I’m about to turn blue but I ain’t forgot about them wasps. I ease myself along the bottom of the boat and come up slow as I can, my face toward the light.
I hit the surface soft, but blowin’ about like one of them whales I’ve seen at the movie show.
I hear Chilly say Mr. LaBauve, what the hell is goin’ on? What was that splashin’ and thumpin’ all about?
I takes me a while to catch my breath.
Chilly, I know, don’t like snakes one bit.
I say oh, nuttin’ much, Chilly. I just had me a bit of a problem. I got tangled up in some vines down there is all.
For the first time, I look at that snake. I’ve broke his neck good. I don’t mind snakes much, actually, and usually give ’em plenty of room. I feel bad he didn’t get to enjoy his frog breakfast—that was a doggone good catch.
I hold that ole boy out far as I can from me and let him go. He sinks down into the tea-dark water and disappears.
I reach underwater and wipe my snake hand against my britches and then scratch my cheek where that mosquito bit me. I say, soft, okay, hold on, Chilly. We’re movin’.
He says, quiet, too, I’m holdin’ on.
I duck under again and get to the back of the boat, then push the pirogue ahead. I slow-walk us past that wasp nest, my feet strokin’ the muddy bottom easy as I can.
I find a big fallen-over cypress log about twenty yards down the slough and pull myself up on it.
I notice I’ve got a coupla nice-sized leeches on me, one on my arm, one on my belly, but I could be worse off. They don’t hurt and I’m anxious to get goin’. When we stop for the night, I’ll get ’em off with fire.
I say we’re okay, Chilly. We’re through.
Chilly rises from under the gunnysacks and looks back.
He says I hope we’ve seen the last of them wasp nests.
I say well, keep a look out. We don’t wanna run into one by accident. I banged into one them things in a palmetto thicket and lost a good Catahoula Cur that day. Them wasps stung him till he swole up like a balloon. Mighta got me, too, had I not made the slough.
He says are you serious, Mr. LaBauve?
I say I’d actually like it better if you’d call me Logan. And, yes, I’m serious.
Chilly says well, maybe we should go ’round this swamp stedda through it. I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to get in that water. All the money in the world wouldn’t get me in that water. There’s snakes in there. We’ve already seen two. Could be gators. Them big yellow and black swamp spiders are the size of hummin’birds, and for all I know them things can swim. Hell, maybe they fly. They give me the willies.