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Welcome to the Bayou
"Look! An alligator!" Six-year-old Benny Alden rolled down the car window. He pointed toward a sheet of slick, dark water pierced by the stumps of trees at the side of the road. "An alligator," Benny repeated. He bounced on the seat. "I saw an alligator!"
"I think it was a big log floating in the water, Benny. Not an alligator," said his twelve-year-old sister, Jessie.
"Roll up the window, Benny," said his other sister, Violet. She was ten and the shyest of the four Aldens.
"Why? Do you think a big alligator might jump in?" Benny asked.
"Of course not," said Violet. Her expression said she didn't like that idea. "But it's so hot. Anyway, you've seen alligators before."
"Not in Louisiana," said Benny. "That was in Florida."
"Well, I don't imagine they're all that different here in Louisiana," Jessie said. "You know, big, lizard-shaped, lots of teeth."
"It's the state reptile of Louisiana," reported Grandfather Alden. He slowed the car down and peered ahead. They were on a narrow unpaved road. Trees draped in moss towered overhead and sheets of dark water stretched out beneath them.
"Why are we slowing down? Did you see another alligator?" Benny asked. He bounced even higher on the seat.
"Put your seat belt back on, Benny," said Henry. "Here, I'll help you."
Henry kept a close eye on his younger brother and his two sisters. Henry was fourteen, the oldest of the Aldens.
"No alligators," their grandfather said. "I'm looking for the sign There it is."
They all saw it then: a big sign, white with faded letters of purple and red that said, BILLIE'S BAYOU BAIT 'N BITE FISH CAMP & RESTAURANT, YOU'RE ALMOST THERE! Beneath it an arrow pointed the way.
They turned down a flat, wide, rutted road. Trees locked branches overhead, shutting out most of the sunlight. The air was very still and very hot. Benny rolled up his window, but he kept his face pressed to the glass, looking for alligators.
Jessie saw the Bait 'n Bite first. She pointed. "Through that gate," she said.
Grandfather turned in at the gate. As he drove across a tire-scuffed patch of sand, they saw that the Bait 'n Bite was perched almost in the water of the bayou beyond. Another low, small house with a long screened porch stood just past it, also right on the bayou. Tucked in the surrounding trees and not far from the restaurant on the other side along the bayou were small cabins, each with a small screened porch.
Opening the car doors, the Aldens tumbled out.
"Hey, there, James Alden," a voice called. A cheerful-looking woman with red curly hair springing out from beneath a purple cap was coming toward them.
"Hello there, Billie!" Grandfather called back.
"I was beginning to think you'd fallen into the bayou and were never going to make it to my birthday fais do do."
"What's a a fay doe doe?" asked Benny.
"A dance. A party, cher," said Billie, "And cher means 'dear, darling.' It's what we call people. You're in the heart of Cajun country here — we Cajuns are the descendants of French Canadians who came to Louisiana almost three hundred years ago. So some of the words we use come from French. Some of our names, too, just like—"
Billie suddenly cupped her hand to her mouth and shouted, "Beau! Beau! Where are you? Beau!"
"That grandson of mine. He keeps disappearing. Well, I'd know you anywhere, James. Your hair's a little grayer, I admit. But you haven't changed."
"You haven't changed, either, Billie Boudreau," Grandfather answered. His eyes twinkled. "I just hope you can swim better than the last time I fished you out of the bayou."
"I was twelve and I could swim fine then," she retorted. "I just wasn't going to let go of that new fishing pole."
They both laughed. Then Billie threw her arms around Grandfather Alden in a bear hug.
"Oof!" said Grandfather Alden. But he hugged her back, grinning.
Then he turned. "These are my grandchildren—"
"I've seen your pictures," Billie interrupted. "Let's see. This tall fellow is Henry. The little pepper here is Benny. Mmm, Jessie?"
"And you must be Violet," said Billie. "Welcome!"
She threw out her arms and Violet took a step back. She was a little shy and she wasn't sure she wanted to have a Billie-style hug so soon after meeting her.
But Billie wasn't hugging anyone. She took a deep breath and shouted, "Beau!"
This time a voice answered, "I'm coming, I'm coming."
A tall, thin young man with wiry red-gold hair came around the side of the restaurant. Paint splashed his faded overalls and speckled his hands and arms.
"Now, where have you been all day, Beau?" Billie demanded.
"Uh, well, uh " Beau's brown eyes shifted as if he were looking for an answer. "You see, uh "
"This is Beau," said Billie. "My grandson. Staying with me for a while to help out. And to work on his art. He's an artist. Going to be famous someday."
Beau's cheeks reddened. "Ah, Gram Billie," he said. He ducked his head in a nod to the Aldens and added, "I'm glad to meet y'all."
"Well, grab a suitcase out of the trunk of the car," Billie told her grandson. She turned to Grandfather Alden. "I've given you the deluxe two-room fish camp with screened porch, right on the bayou," she said. "It'll be a snug fit, but I think you'll like it. Let's get you settled in."
A few minutes later, the Aldens found themselves standing on the porch of a small cabin about two hundred yards down the bayou from the restaurant. There was more porch than cabin, all of it screened in. "You can make up beds on the porch, looking out over the bayou there," said Billie. She motioned toward the water. "It's small, but it's not the smallest cabin in the camp. And it's private. You wouldn't know my shop was that close by, would you?"
"No," Violet almost whispered. From the porch, they could see only swamp and more swamp. It was as if the rest of the world had disappeared.
"It's not much bigger than our boxcar," said Henry. "I like it."
"Boxcar?" asked Billie.
"Yes. We used to live in a boxcar in the woods, before Grandfather found us," explained Jessie.
The Aldens told her all about the boxcar in the woods where they had lived when they were orphans and how they hadn't known their grandfather was looking for them.
"And that's when we found Watch," Benny said. "He lived in the boxcar with us, too."
"Then when Grandfather found us, he moved the boxcar into the backyard of our house and we can visit it anytime we want," concluded Jessie.
"Wow. What a story," said Billie. "Amazing."
"Yes," said Benny. "We have lots of good stories. We solve mysteries, too."
"Mysteries?" Beau spoke up at last. "What kinds of mysteries?"
"All kinds," Violet said. "We like to help people."
"And catch bad guys," said Benny. "We've caught lots and lots of bad guys."
"It's hard to keep a secret around my grandchildren," Grandfather said, smiling.
"Oh," said Beau. "Well. I have to go. See you later." With that, he practically bounded off the porch and out of sight.
The Aldens stared after him in surprise. Billie shook her head. "Honestly, I don't know what's gotten into that grandson of mine these days. Here one minute, gone the next."
They stood silently for a moment, watching as a small boat with two fishermen in it puttered by. Billie waved and the men waved back.
"Are they staying at the fish camp?" asked Jessie.
"No. Just neighbors. They live farther over in the swamp. More people live around here than you might think. We travel by water a lot. Some people can only get to their houses by boat."
The boat puttered out of sight. Billie said, "Well, come over to the Bait 'n Bite when you're ready. You're probably hungry."
"I'm always hungry," said Benny. Then he frowned and said, "You're not going to feed us bait, are you?"
"Nope. We use that to catch the fish. We use the fish to catch the customers! Or if you don't like fish, well, we could feed you gator."
"Gator? Alligator?" Violet gasped.
"Sure," said Billie.
"I don't think I want to eat any alligator," said Jessie. She wasn't sure if Billie was teasing.
"Why not, cher? Tastes like chicken." Billie laughed and pulled her hat down over her curls. Then she strode off toward the Bait 'n Bite.CHAPTER 2
Ghosts and Gumbo
"I don't think I want to eat any alligator, either," Benny said. He finished unpacking and pushed his suitcase under the narrow bed at one end of the porch. He and Henry were sleeping at one end and Jessie and Violet were at the other. Grandfather had the tiny bedroom inside the cabin.
Grandfather overheard Benny as he came out onto the porch. "You don't have to if you don't want to, Benny," he said.
"Good," said Benny.
The Aldens walked back to the restaurant. But they didn't go in right away. Billie was out on the dock, talking to a tanned man in a bright orange cap. He had short hair that looked as if it had been hair-sprayed in place and he kept flashing his teeth in a big smile as he talked to Billie,
She wasn't answering. She just nodded as she tied a boat to the dock and picked up a cooler off the pier.
"Hi!" Benny called, waving. "We're here. Is it time for dinner?"
The man flashed his white teeth again. "Oh, are you serving dinner? I thought the restaurant was closed on Monday nights."
"It's a special party for my friends," said Billie.
"Who came for your birthday celebration," said the man. "Right?"
Billie smiled very slightly. "Now I'm wondering how you might have heard about that," she said.
"Who hasn't?" asked the man. "But Beau, your grandson, was telling me, as a matter of fact. Interesting young man, Beau. Talented. Of course, it doesn't matter how talented he is if he spends his whole life on this bayou. The world will never know what an amazing artist he is."
Billie gave the man a narrow-eyed look. She didn't say anything. Instead, she turned and handed the cooler to Jessie. "Here. You can carry this for me. Empty the ice and wash it out with that hose by the side of the house there."
"I can do that," said the man.
"No, no," said Billie. "We've got it covered."
She seemed to be trying to ignore the man. She hadn't even introduced him.
He didn't seem to notice. He turned to Grandfather and said, "Hi. I'm Travis. Travis Bush. I'm a big admirer of Billie's place here."
"James Alden," said Grandfather, shaking the man's hand. "You like to fish?"
Billie made a noise in her throat that sounded like Humph. She picked up a tackle box and fishing pole and said to Jessie, "Come on." She and Jessie walked toward the house.
Benny, Violet, and Henry stayed behind. They wanted to find out more about Travis Bush.
Benny looked over at the boats and counted, "One, two, three, four, five boats. Wow — Billie's got a lot of boats!"
"She could run a lot more boats if she wanted to. Really make this a big operation," Travis said. "She's got the ideal place for it. A little fixing up, she could be making a lot more money with a real fishing and vacation resort."
"I like it here the way it is," said Henry. He wasn't quite sure he liked this smiling stranger.
The stranger glanced in Henry's direction. "Yes, but you're not a businessman, are you, son?" he asked.
"Is Billie looking for a partner?" Violet asked.
"No. But I'm hoping I can change her mind. Or persuade her to sell this place to me. I'd give her a very good price," Travis said. "It would make a nice birthday present. She could retire. Travel."
Grandfather laughed and shook his head. "Billie was born and raised on this bayou," he said. "She's not going anywhere."
The man smiled again. Benny frowned. He didn't like that man's smile, not one bit. "We'll see about that," the man said. He nodded and strode off.
"I don't like him," said Benny. "He smiles like an alligator that wants to eat you."
"I know how you feel, Benny," Henry said.
"If you keep standing around out there, you'll never get dinner," Billie shouted from the front porch of the Bait 'n Bite.
"Come on!" cried Benny, forgetting about Travis Bush. He led the way as fast as he could up the pier and across the front yard of the restaurant. He banged open the screen door and crossed a wide porch filled with tables and all kinds of chairs. None of them matched. Each table had a colorful vinyl tablecloth held down with salt and pepper shakers shaped like alligators. Bowls of sugar and big bottles of hot sauce stood next to the salt and pepper shakers.
The sun was beginning to go down and the heat wasn't quite so bad. But the Aldens were glad for the big fans that whirled overhead.
Billie disappeared through another screen door. A few minutes later she returned, carrying a big bowl with a cover on it and the handle of a ladle sticking out from beneath. Behind her came Beau, carrying another bowl filled with rice.
When Billie and Beau sat down, Benny asked, "What's in the big bowl?"
"Gumbo," said Billie. "My own special recipe."
"Gumbo?" asked Jessie.
"It's a sort of stew. Made with okra and tomatoes and onions, among other things." Billie paused and said, "I was going to make chicken gumbo, but I couldn't find any chicken in the refrigerator. I know I had some."
"If it isn't chicken gumbo, what kind is it? Does it have alligator in it?" Violet asked.
"Not tonight," said Billie, grinning. "Shrimp, fish, crab. Seafood gumbo."
"Oh, good," said Benny, holding out his plate.
Soon they were all eating gumbo as fast as they could.
"I thought I'd be too hot to eat, but I'm not," said Violet.
"Hot? This is nothing," said Billie. "Heat, mosquitoes, alligators, we have it all down here in the Atchafalaya Basin."
Benny asked, "The Achoo-fly-what?"
"The Atchafalaya Basin," repeated Billie. "That's the official name of all this water and swamp along this part of Louisiana." Seeing Benny's expression, she added, "Don't worry. You can call where I live Alligator Swamp. That's the local name for it."
"Are there more alligators here than in the rest of the basin?" asked Violet.
"No. But we used to have a famous alligator named Gator Ann. She'd come right up by the pier down here and just float along. I guess she knew she was safe here."
"Safe from what?" asked Henry.
"People," said Billie. "People hunt them. Sell the hides, the teeth, the jaws, eat the meat. But I don't allow any hunting of anything in my part of this swamp. No guns. Fishing, that's it."
"Don't forget birdwatching," a voice as dry as the rustle of leaves said from behind them.
No one had heard him come in, but there he was, a man not much bigger, it seemed, than an elf. He wore a wide straw hat over hair that was almost the same color, patched and faded khakis, and an even more faded but unpatched long-sleeved blue work shirt. A pair of binoculars hung around his neck.
Billie didn't seemed surprised at all by the man's sudden appearance. She said, "My old friend Gaston Doucet, meet my old friend James Alden and his grandchildren, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. Gaston lives just down the bayou. He's a librarian."
"Retired librarian," rasped Gaston. "Full-time birdwatcher." He tapped the binoculars that hung around his neck. "Am I still invited to dinner?"
"Pull up a chair," said Billie. "I was hoping you wouldn't forget the time, out there in the swamp watching birds with those fancy new binoculars of yours. Is Eve coming?"
Gaston shook his head. He sat down and began to fill his plate. He took off his hat, but he kept his binoculars around his neck.
"She's not with you?" Billie asked.
Gaston shook his head again. "Went off with Rose today."
"Eve is Gaston's niece," Billie explained. "Rose is a guide with one of the swamp tours around here."
Gaston seemed content to let Billie do most of the talking. She went on, "Eve's about your age, Jessie. She's a swamp expert, same as her uncle."
Gaston smiled a little at that. But he shook his head and said, "She was turning into a good birdwatcher, too. But now all she thinks about is that ghost alligator."
"Ghost alligator?" Benny cried. He looked around as if he expected the ghost of an alligator to come walking through the door.
"Yep. The ghost of Gator Ann," Billie said. "At least that's what people say."
"Ghosts. Huh." Gaston snorted.
"Gator Ann? The alligator who used to live right out there in the bayou?" Jessie asked.
"That's right," said Billie.
Grandfather said, "Looks like you four might have another mystery to solve."
"No mystery," said Gaston. "Just some fishermen who've been out in the sun too long."
"They see the ghost in the middle of the day?" Violet asked nervously.
Excerpted from The Mystery of the Alligator Swamp by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau. Copyright © 2002 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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Posted July 11, 2014