Terror at Bottle Creek

Terror at Bottle Creek

by Watt Key


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250104212
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication date: 01/10/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 145,672
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 10 - 13 Years

About the Author

Watt Key lives in southern Alabama with his family, near the swamp where this story takes place. His debut novel, Alabama Moon, was named to Time Magazine's list of the Best Hundred YA Books of All Time. Terror at Bottle Creek is his fourth book.

Read an Excerpt


Dad said it was too early to be worried about the hurricane. So far, all the storms predicted to hit us that season had veered east into Florida. Besides, we'd been through plenty of them before. It was just part of life on the Alabama coast.

I wasn't so sure. The storm I saw on our television was big, and it was taking a different approach than the others. And with a name like Igor, it sounded cruel and deadly.

I looked out the window of our houseboat. I'd have to think about the hurricane later. At the time I needed to worry about Dad's two clients waiting outside in their truck. He was supposed to have been back an hour ago to take them on an alligator hunt. They'd come all the way from Mississippi and they were getting anxious.

I keyed the handheld radio and tried him again.


He didn't answer, but I didn't expect him to. I knew he was just up the road at Mom's rental house, and he didn't want me to know. Ever since she'd walked out on us six months before, he'd been going over there and trying to convince her to come back. I knew she didn't want to see him. Sometimes I think he just parked in her driveway and stared at the windows.

I walked out onto the deck and looked up the riverbank. The tall man named Jim got out of the driver's side and leaned against his pickup under the utility light. He twiddled a toothpick in his mouth and looked at his watch.

"You get him?" he asked.

"He'll be here," I said.

The man scraped the gravel with his boot and frowned.

My dog, Catfish, trotted up the ramp and leaned against my leg. I knelt and scratched him behind the ears. There was a strong smell of fish about him.

"What you been into out there, boy?" I said to him.

He wasn't much to look at. A dirty yellow mix of terrier and collie I'd found wandering the riverbank a few years before. Catfish thumped his tail against the deck and whined and trembled with excitement.

"We're going," I said to him. "Just hold on."

He thumped his tail again.

I heard the short, heavyset man named Hoss get out of the truck. His feet crunched across the gravel.

"Maybe we ought to call it off," he said.

"He'll be here," I said.

"Well, we got —"

We all heard Dad's pickup coming down the hill. He stopped behind the two men from Mississippi and got out while pulling a ball cap over his head. He hefted his jeans, which always seemed to be falling off him these days. He'd been thin and wiry his whole life, but ever since Mom left he looked like he didn't eat anything. She'd sucked the life out of him in more ways than one.

"Anybody ready to get a ten-footer?" he said.

"We been ready, Tom," Jim said.

Dad approached them and shook hands with each. They grinned reluctantly. Dad put on his carefree act, which used to come naturally to him.

"Sorry about that, fellows. I'll make it up to you. Gonna put you on old No-name tonight. Big rascal I been watchin' grow for fifteen years."

"Sounds good to me," Jim said.

Dad turned and crossed the ramp onto the houseboat and rolled his eyes at me like some people just didn't understand. Well, I understood. He was wasting his time and everybody else's carrying on about Mom like he did. And it was embarrassing. But how does a thirteen-year-old tell his dad he's being a fool?

"They almost went back to Mississippi," I said.

"They'd be sorry, too. You got everything ready?"

"Yes, sir."

"All right. Go help 'em with their gear, and let's head out."


Dad was the best river guide in the county. He took his clients out by himself during the school week, but I helped him on weekends. Now the alligator-hunting season had him busier than ever. The work was tiresome, but it paid more than his usual hog hunts and fishing trips.

I gave life vests to our two clients and seated them in the front of our eighteen-foot flats boat. It was an aluminum-hull, center-console jon with a ninety-horsepower Yamaha two-stroke outboard. Dad said he didn't like four-strokes. Said they were too expensive and complicated to work on. If he couldn't fix a thing himself, he didn't want it.

Catfish scrambled into the boat and got into position on an old towel in the rear corner. Meanwhile, I cast off the stern and bow lines. Dad cranked the motor and waited until I climbed aboard. Then he put the boat in gear and idled out into the river.

"You fellows got everything you need up there?" he asked the men.

"We're good," Hoss said.

Our clients seemed in better spirits now that we were under way. They both cracked a beer and toasted each other. I returned to the rear of the boat, got the spotlight out of the dry box, and plugged it into the accessory port on the console.

"You got the emergency gas?" Dad asked me.

"It's up front," I said. "We really going all the way to Bottle Creek tonight?"

"I reckon. Get off this river. We won't have anybody messin' us up out there."

The alligator Dad called No-name lived in a slough on Bottle Creek. It was about as far into the middle of the swamp as one could get. If a person had heard of the place, it wasn't because of the fishing or hunting. Near this creek, shrouded beneath a tall canopy of cypress and water oaks, are the ruins of an ancient Indian civilization. Archaeologists refer to the place as the Bottle Creek Mound Site. There are no roads to it, no markings on maps, nothing to even signify the place except for a faint footpath of white sand.

Dad continued idling out into the river, letting the engine warm up. I triggered the spotlight and waved it across the water, then triggered it off again. We wouldn't need it for a while unless we heard another boat coming. We'd run dark, without any navigation lights, until we got deeper into the swamp. At night it was easier that way. It wasn't legal, but we could see better, using the dark wall of trees rising on either side of the bayous to guide us. Lights or not, there was always the risk of hitting a deadhead, a submerged log or piling. But Dad had run the swamp since he was a boy, and he'd memorized where all the hazards were.

"Nice night," Dad said to the men.

The water lay black and still, pressed beneath the thick greenhouse smell of the heavy air. It was unusually warm for late September, and the frogs and insects still cheeped and pulsed from the marsh. Across the river the swamp fell away for miles, calm and peaceful. I looked up and studied the sky. It was cloudless and specked with stars.

"What you think about that storm out there, Tom?" Hoss said.

"We're here, ain't we?" Dad said.

"They seem to keep throwin' 'em at us this year, don't they?"

"Long as they keep throwin' 'em into Florida, I don't mind," Dad said. "You boys ready to run?"

The men shifted and steadied themselves on the bench seat as Dad accelerated the boat onto a plane. I glanced down at my shoelaces, making sure they were untied. We'd both ride standing up in order to see better. If we hit something and got thrown out, it was important to be able to kick off our shoes. A person can drown easy with shoes on.

The boat leveled out and we were soon racing across a black mirror of water with the wind whipping at our hair. I knew we might not be the only boat running dark until we got deeper into the backwater. Usually we had the swamp to ourselves that time of night, but with alligator season in, there was no telling. I trained my ears to listen for engine noise and kept my finger ready on the spotlight trigger in case I had to flash a warning signal.

We veered off the Tensaw River into a small bayou where the trees rose and hung over us on either side. Dad played the steering wheel, gently brushing it right and left, each of us drifting into our thoughts behind the steady noise of the engine.

There used to be nothing I looked forward to more than going out with him. But ever since Mom left, things had changed. Now, even though Dad was right beside me, it felt like I was alone. And everything he'd taught me about the swamp seemed useless. I just didn't see the point in it anymore.

"You all right?" he asked me.

I kept my eyes on the trees and nodded. He knew what was bothering me, but he was poisoned with her. He couldn't get her out of his head, and I didn't understand it. She was sure out of my head. I never wanted to see her again if I could help it.

"Been a while since we've been to the mounds," he said.

"Yeah," I said.

We used to hunt and fish along Bottle Creek, but it had been a couple of years since we'd made the trip. The first time he showed me the mounds is one of my most vivid memories. He took me back there late one afternoon when I was six years old. We left the jon nosed into the brush, and he hefted me onto his shoulders and ducked into the narrow trail. After a few yards the trail widened under giant cypresses and water oaks. The swamp was suddenly dark and cool and strangely still. The only sounds were mysterious bird calls distant and shrill from the high canopy. Raspy green palmetto plants and large mossy vines made it feel like a lost land from the dinosaur age.

He carried me for nearly a half mile before I saw the mounds rising out of the gloam. They were eerie and ivy-covered and something from another realm, a long time ago. The first few hills were no higher than Dad's waist. As we continued they grew larger until we arrived at the highest, nearly fifty feet tall, rising into the canopy. He set me down and I followed him up the steep incline until we arrived at the top. We stood there beneath an old juniper, staring into the branches of the canopy beyond.

"Hit that left bank," Dad said, interrupting my thoughts.

I triggered the spotlight briefly on the riverbank ahead. Just enough for him to see a dark gap in the trees. He nodded and started a slow turn toward it. After thirty minutes of weaving through a maze of creeks and sloughs, he eased back on the throttle. The boat sat down in the narrow creek and we continued on, idling slowly beneath the Spanish moss and cypress limbs.

"All right, fellows," Dad said. "Let's get us a gator."


Dad killed the motor and we drifted quietly on the black water of Bottle Creek. I walked to the front of the boat, plugged in another spotlight, and gave it to Jim.

"Shine it up ahead of us," I told him. "Look for orange eyes glowing on top of the water."

Jim and Hoss both turned in their seats, and Jim began waving the light across the water and under the overhanging trees. I returned to the stern and sat in the jump seat beside Catfish and scratched him on the neck. Dad sat down in the chair behind the steering console and used the other spotlight to do his own searching.

"You boys heard of the Bottle Creek Indian mounds?" Dad said.

The men shook their heads, still studying the dark water.

"You get off in the woods to your right, and you'll run up on 'em. Like Inca ruins back there."

Jim turned and put his light on the trees, but there was nothing to see except a dense tangle of palmetto and vines and Spanish moss.

"Way out here?" Jim said.

"About seven hundred years ago," Dad continued, "ancestors of the Creek and Choctaw Indians came down from middle Alabama to build a city in the swamp. There's eighteen mounds out there. They say there was thousands of Indians lived on top of 'em for hundreds of years. Then they all just disappeared."

"What happened?" Hoss asked.

Dad shrugged. "I bring archaeologists out here sometimes. From the University of South Alabama. They dig around and try to figure stuff out. Said maybe Hernando de Soto killed 'em. Maybe diseases. They don't know."

"I never heard of it," Jim said.

"Not many people have. It's too far in the middle of nowhere. No roads or nothin' to get to it."

"Who owns this land?" Jim said.

"U.S. government. There's an old metal sign back there sayin' it's a National Historic Landmark. Twenty years ago I brought the fellow out here that put it up ... I figure that's the last time the government set foot in this place."

The men kept staring at the trees, probably thinking about the mounds. I'd thought about the mounds enough. And I already knew plenty about alligators and just about everything else in the swamp. Instead I wondered what my neighbor Liza Stovall was doing. Probably out with her friends somewhere. She was in my same class at school. We rode the bus together in the mornings along with her six-year-old sister, Francie. But Liza had a different life and different friends. Friends with real houses and places other than a giant dark swamp to go on weekends. It didn't bother me as much before Mom left. Now the thought of being left out was constantly on my mind.

"Better get your light on the water again," Dad said to the men. "Around this bend we'll come to a slough on the right. He ought to be there."

A light breeze brushed the tops of the swamp canopy. I looked up and saw the leaves trembling and thought about the hurricane again. Thought of it hundreds of miles away. Even if it didn't hit us, if it just came anywhere close, we'd be working for days getting not only ourselves ready but everybody else at the river landing.

As the current took us around the bend I saw the orange eyes reflecting in Dad's spotlight beam about twenty yards ahead. Catfish twitched and growled deep in his throat.

I put my hand on his head. "Easy, boy," I said to him.

Dad switched the light off and set it on the floor. He'd seen the gator, too, but he'd give his clients a chance to discover it for themselves.

Jim swung his beam over the creek, passing over the eyes once, then jerking the light back. "I see something, Tom," he said.

Dad stood up quietly. "Keep it on there," he said. "Yep, there he is, fellows."

"He's a big one," Hoss said.

"I told you," Dad said. "Cort, get the .22 out of the dry box and get it loaded. Hoss, grab that deep-sea fishing rod behind you and stand on the bow with it. Jim, you keep the light on him."

Hoss stepped onto the bow with the fishing rod. It was spooled with hundred-pound braided line and a weighted treble hook made for sharks.

"Those eyes are nearly a foot apart," Jim said.

Ten inches was more accurate, each inch representing about a foot of body length. But Dad wasn't going to spoil their excitement.

"Cast that hook over his back," Dad said. "Then reel it slow and snag him."

"We gonna reel him in?" Jim asked.

"No, but we'll wear him out," Dad said. "Then pull up to him."

It was a strange way to hunt, but the hunting regulations required that the alligator be harpooned or snagged and secured against the gunnels before you could shoot it.

"He can't get in the boat, can he?" Jim asked.

"He won't get in here, but don't stick your hand out after him."

Our two clients didn't know much about alligator hunting, but they'd been sportsmen all their lives and knew how to cast a fishing rod. Hoss arced the treble hook down the creek and made an almost perfect cast just over the gator's neck. Then he reeled slow until the line was taut.

"Hit it!" Dad said.

Hoss yanked the line, and the gator swirled the water and dove for the creek bottom. The fishing rod bowed and whined as the line spooled against the drag.

"Whoa, son!" Hoss yelled as he leaned into the strain.

"Keep the light on that line," Dad said. "We're just gettin' started."


Hoss strained and sweated against the alligator. At one point I had to go to the front of the boat and pour water in his mouth and over his head. He leaned into the fight for thirty more minutes before the gator surfaced again. By then we were ten feet from the beast, ancient and black and smelling of fetid river mud. It only took a moment for him to see us and dive again. Then the bull towed us downstream for an hour while Hoss kept tension on the line and reeled when he could.

When the gator eventually tired, he stopped swimming and settled on the creek bottom like a boulder. Hoss reeled steadily, and the line began to angle down as we pulled the boat toward it.

"Give me the light, Jim," Dad said. "Cort, pass him that rifle."

"You think he's done?" Hoss grunted.

"He's about to be," Dad said.

Jim passed the spotlight to Dad, and I chambered a round into the .22, made sure the safety was on, and handed it to Jim. Hoss took one hand off the rod and wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve.

"Now, listen up," Dad said. "Here's what we're gonna do. Hoss, you bow up on that rod and he'll come up next to the boat. When he does, Jim — I mean, as soon as you see him — you put a round right between his eyes. You got one shot. You hit him wrong, and he's gonna go nuts. Got it?"

Jim stared at the water and nodded.

"Go ahead, Hoss," Dad said. "Lean back on it."


Excerpted from "Terror at Bottle Creek"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Watt Key.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Terror at Bottle Creek 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Its good awesome lead im 12 and read of wat keys books!!