Plague Dreams Story #1
A Pre-apocalyptic Novella
Small towns and rivers go hand-in-hand. Memories of summer, rope swings, and swimming holes often come to mind when thinking about small towns and rivers. Sometimes the rivers are called streams or creeks, and sometimes they’re called bayous, marshes, or swamps. The name depends on the geographical region of the United States you happened to be in at the time. Down south, these bayous are the murky outlets of rivers or lakes, the small bodies of water that never seem
In the south, they are sluggish, marshy areas with ‘skeeters’ and other bloodsuckers, birds, and fish and ‘gators.’ But most importantly, they are places where legends thrive in backwoods towns and parishes, villages and counties, creating an eternal sense of mystery and danger. Bayous are the habitats of horrible creatures such as Bogeys…those large, hairy mammals also known as Bigfoot. Maniacs recently escaped from state hospitals, also like to reside in bayous.
Billy was thirteen going on fourteen when he first made friends with a swamp witch. His friendship continued to grow and deepen through 1969 when he turned eighteen, four decades ago. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so long ago to him, especially on the nights when the world outside is still with nary a breeze or night bird calling.
Louisiana, the heart of Dixie, land of the Deep South, was the kingdom of cotton, sugar and shrimp. New Orleans was to the north and east of Tarawa. Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras swung with blues and jazz on every corner. The air wafted with scents of alcohol, and shrimp Creole, dirty rice and spicy gumbo, and people danced all night. Every night was a party down in the French Quarter. Outside New Orleans, the night was still.
Driving south from the city on Highway 23 takes you to Gretna and still further south are Port Sulphur, Buras, and Venice. Coasting westerly along Highway 90 you run into Raceland where Highway 1 joins in. Headed south along Highway 1 will take you to Golden Meadow and eventually Grand Isle. Tarawa, not located on any map, like New Orleans, is set dab in the middle of this convoluted triangle. The town is surrounded by the Mississippi River to its immediate east, Barataria Bay to the south, Bayou Lafourche to the west, and Little Lake to the north. Like New Orleans, you must cross a body of water, no matter which direction you come from into town.
In 1969, the roads leading into and out of Tarawa had not yet been paved and were mere dirt tracks, often muddy or under water. The main users of the roads were the delivery trucks, the postman, and the townsfolk escaping for a weekend in the big city. In 1969, fewer than seventy-five people lived in Tarawa. In those days, Tarawa wore a shroud of the past, surrounded by the remnants of white gentility, the tradition of black slavery, and the ghosts of great plantations. It appeared the ideal backwoods town, a forerunner of Mayberry in the old Andy Griffith Show. Under its sleepy mantle, however, the racial tensions of the decade could be felt.
Billy had a secret place that summer. It was a meadow he had carved out behind the gigantic yards, back in the swamps. There, he strung up a swing made from vine rope he had twined and a stolen tire from Mike’s garage. It was located due west of Harold’s Grocery, although, if you didn’t know what to look for, you’d probably miss it. The large, blackened stump provided the only visible landmark to the clearing. It served as a sort of hiding place without a name. It was his place and only his closest friends were welcome in it.
There were four steady guys and a girl that tagged along sometimes. They’d spent a good portion of June dragging away the fallen debris to get to the sturdy cypress with its ten-inch thick branches. The tree was old and looked as though it might topple at any minute from the way its roots pulled up out of the ground and the crazy way its twisted body leaned. Spanish Moss hung thick from the smaller branches so that their wispy fingers frequently brushed against their faces as they worked.
Gary was the next to the oldest and often kept the others out of hot water. Only Terry was insane enough to swing until she was level with the branch. Mitch and Ted were terrified she would slip the tire swing over and go sailing through the air like a trapeze artist without a net.
It was just such a weekend that scrambled their fates so extremely. Only a traumatic experience could have usurped their plans. Mitch was going to be in the NBA; Ted wanted to be a doctor. Ted’s twin sister Terry was a racer. Billy planned to marry Mary Lou. So what happened to them? In 1969, they were teens about to discover a terrifying death on earth.
They chattered noisily and tossed a battered baseball back and forth as they strolled toward the pop machine at the local grocery store.
“Which one you want, Gary?” Ted asked, fishing coins out of his pocket, and jingling them.
“Pepsi, of course,” Gary replied, picking up a corner of his blue shirt and wiping his sweaty face.
“Of course,” Ted said, rolling his black eyes.
After they all had gotten their soda, they ran to the shade of the store’s porch. “Sure is hot here,” Terry rubbed the sweat from her gray eyes. Perspiration streaked her forehead. The group sprawled in front of the general store of Tarawa, Louisiana and drank thirstily from their pop cans.
From their dress, it was easy to distinguish between the summer residents and the natives. All the visitors wore permanent press shorts, while the natives wore patched, cut-off jeans. “My brother hunts alligators,” Gary boasted.
“Wow!” Terry exclaimed in awe. “Hey, I heard there’s a witch in the swamps. Is that true?” she demanded.
“Yep,” Gary nodded. “Town folks claim Hattie lives somewhere back in the bayou. They don’t try to find her no more, because the last one who tried never came out again. My brother, Billy, is the only one who’s ever come out after seeing her. Old man Joshua says Hattie is a necromancer.”
“What’s that?” Mitch asked.
“I dunno,” Ted shrugged. “Who cares anyhow?” He took a swig of pop and then said, “Alls we know is that Hattie’s strange, and we haven’t ever seen her. Right, fellas?”
“Right!” they chorused.
“Pappy says we aren’t never supposed to go near them swamps lessens we’re with a grownup,” Ted announced.
“You’re just saying that because you’re too chicken to go explore the swamp,” Terry accused, and stabbed her brother with a stubby finger.
“I am not!” Ted retorted, leaping to his feet.
“You are too!” Terry yelled, clenching her fists.
“We aren’t! Are we fellas?” Ted demanded, with his hands on his hips and his pinched face scowling like a small tyrant. He tried to look fierce.
“No!” the others replied in unison.
“Then Gary will get Billy to take us in there,” Terry shot back. She spoke with vibrant vehemence.
“Ted told y’all,” Gary protested. “We aren’t allowed in them swamps.” His large dark brown eyes accentuated his wide, childish face.
“Hey, Ted! Why don’t we show them that we Americans are tougher than any old tenderfoot Cajun?” Mitch asked, and then shook his hair out of his blue eyes.
“Right,” Ted agreed. “Let’s go find him.” As if on cue, all five teens sprang to their feet and tramped off in search of Billy Garfield at the local filling station.
Billy Garfield was well built and tall, with hands large and strong enough to kill a man if necessary. The muscles in his arms and legs were forever ready to spring into action if the need arose. The chin was firm, powerful and showed traces of a stubborn streak. His lips were thin and slightly upturned, and he had a long, slim nose. His gentle, dark eyes were perfectly situated above not quite high cheekbones. Small lines extended from the corners of his eyes. In his expression, there was a shadow of the hard life he’d lived, and the understanding and kindness he felt for his fellow man.
“In New Orleans,” Billy replied calmly. “He’ll be in on the boat around three. Adam will take you there.”
“Thanks.” The customer snapped as he turned and waddled down the street, his mouth twitching.
“Darn city folks,” Billy muttered, then turned to see his little brother standing behind him. “Gary, what are you doing here?” he asked, as he wiped his hands on a red grease rag. “This isn’t a hangout.”
“We want to go with you to the bayou,” Gary announced. “Can we? We don’t aim to get in your way.”
“I reckon I can take y’all camping as long as you don’t bother my hunting,” Billy agreed slowly, his dark eyes fondly surveying his friends.
“We promise!” they all shouted together.
“Okay,” Billy laughed. “Y’all go home and ask. If you can go, meet me here at five o’clock tomorrow morning,” he instructed.
The Garfield house was easy to spot. It was originally built of split cypress and bricks made of mud and were one of the oldest houses in Tarawa. Like some of the older southern homes, it still retained the wide chimney and cast iron stove.
“Sorry, I’m late, Mama,” Billy said as he entered the house, pulled a chair up to the wooden table in the kitchen and sat down. While he heaped his plate with jambalaya and bread, he brought up the subject of his hunting trip. “I’ll be leaving in the morning. I plan to take some of Gary’s friends so I’ll need several days’ supply of fatback, coffee and bread enough for at least six or seven people. “Papa, did you get the bullets?” he asked. “We’ll be needing them.”
“Oui. Achilles’ got them and gave them to me this morning,” his father replied. “He said they came in last night.” The small man’s weathered and tanned cheeks bulged with food.
“Combien?” Billy asked as he gazed fondly at his three younger brothers, who were rapidly spooning the delicious food into their mouths.
“What is ya planning to hunt?” Billy’s grandmother asked.
“Mainly ‘gators and maybe some birds,” Billy replied.
“Gators?” she demanded. “Billy, you know it isn’t legal,” Her eyes flashed angrily.
“Oui, I know, Mamere, but we need the money,” Billy conceded.
“Not that bad,” she grumbled.
“Now, you know better than that,” Billy contradicted. “With Papa not able to work since the accident and being sickly lately, and Mama expecting again, and my planning to marry Mary Lou, how in the world will my job ever pay enough to raise this family?” he demanded. “We go through this ever’ time I go hunting. I’m getting plumb sick of it. Besides, how will I pay for school things and a few extras the kids like? We all know Brian won’t help. He’s made that quite clear,” Billy muttered.
“You could get another job,” his grandmother suggested.
“Sure,” Billy laughed. “I’m already working ten to twelve hours a day. Am I supposed to go without sleep, too? We can use the money the skins bring. I’m sorry, but I’m going hunting, and that’s final!” He slapped the table with his fist.
“Can I go with you, Billy?” asked Mac, the four-year-old, as he spilled milk down the front of him in his eagerness.
“No, Mac,” Billy replied. “You’re not old enough yet. When you’ve grown a little more, I’ll take you.”
“Still say, we don’t need the money so bad you can’t earn enough legally,” the grandmother mumbled. “And just what is this family supposed to do if you get arrested and sent to prison?” she demanded. “If we need money so bad, perhaps now isn’t the time to marry.”
“And why do I have to be the only one to support this family?” Billy exploded. “Oh, never mind.” He fled the kitchen. Outside, he took a deep breath and gazed up at the stars.
His father stepped beside him and patted him on the back. “Billy, she didn’t mean to make you feel bad.”
“Feel like what? Like a selfish brat?” He took another deep breath. “Well…that’s exactly how I’m feeling. You try so hard, but things never seem to work out right. Sometimes I feel so bad I want to run off into the swamps and never come back. Papa, why won’t Brian help us? Why? I gave up a chance to go to college just so he could go. Just once, I’d like to be able to do something for myself, something for me!” he sighed. “Is that so bad? Am I so rotten for wanting to live my life?”
“No, son, it’s not bad to want something for yourself. Lord knows, you deserve a few good things in life. Now, hadn’t you better get going? You don’t want to keep your fiancé waiting.”
A heavy cloud left a dark shadow on the ground as it crept through the silent and vacant streets of the town. The sun was just beginning to rise, with the promise of another hot and humid day.
“Hi, guys!” Billy greeted, as he approached his friends waiting under the streetlight by the gas station.
“Hi!” Ted replied. “What’s the gun for?” he questioned.
“I’ll be doing a little hunting,” Billy replied easily. “Well, if we’re going to make camp in the swamp tonight, we better get going.”
Silence and a sense of mystery overwhelmed the chattering boys as Billy led them through dense foliage toward Grand River. “From here we’ll follow the river for a ways before entering the swamp and finding a place to set up camp,” Billy explained to his followers.
The sound of churning water aroused the curiosity of the city boys, and they craned their necks to catch a glimpse of whatever was coming downstream on the river. Presently a burst of black smoke appeared, followed seconds later by the front of an old boat.
“What’s that junk heap?” Terry demanded to know.
“It’s an old sternwheeler,” Billy answered. “Ole man Mason uses it as a houseboat.” He waved to the old man behind the wheel.
The old man didn’t respond and the boat veered toward them like a drunken sailor. “Mason? You okay?” Billy called to the man. “Something isn’t right.” He watched as the boat came closer and a foul stench drifted on the breeze. “Get back guys.”
The boat was scarred, and the paint had peeled off it. Like most paddle wheel boats, it had a tall chimney, an old pilothouse, a paddle box and hurricane deck on top, with cabins located below. Billy dug out binoculars and watched the boat. The man had pustules covering his face and exposed arms. It looked as though the man had lashed himself to the wheel. “Get back guys. Stay away from the boat. I think he’s dead from some kind of sickness.”
Within minutes, the ancient craft disappeared from sight, and the group continued their hike. They kept on the alert for cottonmouths. They made camp that night in a rare thicket surrounded by the swamp. In the morning, Billy led them into the bayou to hunt alligators. Visions of old man Mason had kept him awake all night. He decided to look for other signs of disease in the swamp. If Mason had died from a sickness, it was possible something in the swamp may have caused it. If there were a change in the swamp, he would see signs of it in the animals.
“Now, you stay where I can see you and keep out of the water,” Billy cautioned. “I’m going to look for alligator tracks, okay?”
“Okay,” they replied in unison, as they watched him set off around the edge of the marsh, pausing now and then to inspect the ground closely.
The hours passed quickly, as they played games while Billy searched among the grasses for signs of the mighty creatures he sought.
“Billy!” Terry screamed suddenly. “Help!”
Billy looked up from examining the ground and froze in horror. The scene before him was enough to make his heart leap into his throat. Terry was standing in the water on the far side of the marsh and was pointing at a long, broad animal swimming toward her.
“Terry!” Billy yelled. “Get out of there!” He raced along the shore, pushing aside and leaping over small mountains of cattails. As he ran, he pictured the fate of poacher Robert McKay, whose limbs were torn from his body before the creature proceeded to gulp down parts of him. “Terry!” he hollered again. “Get out!”
“I can’t!” Terry cried. “I’m scared!”
In desperation, Billy plunged into the murky water, grabbed the reptile and managed to straddle it. Quickly, he had his arms about the animal’s snout, preventing it from opening its jaws. The great creature tossed wildly, and Billy’s muscles began to quiver and the sweat poured down his face.
“Get out!” he yelled. “Get her out of here!” he instructed, turning to the other boys. “Hurry! I can’t hold this critter all day!”
Ted and Mitch entered the water and dragged out Terry.
“Ted, stay here,” Billy instructed. “The rest of you get back.”
The boys obeyed immediately.
“See that branch on your right?” Billy asked, indicating with a nod of his head.
“This one?” Ted asked, picking up a large stick.
“No, the one behind it,” Billy said.
“This?” Ted’s wiry body was nearly hidden by it.
“Yeah,” Billy nodded. “Bring it to the edge and toss it here.” It fell into the water with a heavy splash. Billy pulled the alligator’s head up to his chest, thus freeing his left hand so he could grab the branch. “Now, go back to the others,” he instructed his younger brother. “I don’t want you to see what I’m going to do.”
“Why?” Ted asked, his eyes sparkling mischievously.
“Cause,” Billy stated. “Just get going and don’t look back, no matter what you hear. Understand?”
“Yeah,” Ted sulked. He turned and left Billy in the swamp. Seconds later, he shivered with horror when he heard the sickening crunch of the branch as it hit the reptile’s head, the creature’s haunting death roar and the thrashing of its body as it died.
Billy examined the carcass of the gator. It did not look normal. Where an alligator’s snout is wide and rounded, this one looked as though part of it had rotted away, leaving a bloody mess dripping from the tip. The prominent ridges along the back to the tip of the tail looked blunted and had purple pustules, some of which had burst and leaked a yellowish-green substance. Billy wiped his hands on his pants and hoped none of them had been infected.
Billy came lunging out of the swamp a few minutes later and up to where the teens sat waiting. “You!” he shouted, pointing an accusing finger at Terry. “You nearly got us killed!” He was obviously shaken. “I ought to tan your hide good!” He sank down into the cool dirt, and his breath came in uneven gasps and his muscles still trembled. “Why did you disobey me?”
“I wanted to see a ‘gator up close,” Terry said, awestruck, as she knelt beside the young man. “You saved my life.”
“Forget it,” Billy muttered. “Just don’t do anything like that again. You scared the living daylights out of me.”
“Me, too,” the freckle-faced girl added, sitting beside her new-found hero.
After Billy had taken the teens back to camp, he returned to the bayou to locate his rifle and spend the rest of the afternoon searching for more sick animals. He found plenty. Not wanting to increase any chances of infection he killed and burned them, including the skins. He returned to camp with only his rifle. The teens were busy gathering wood for the fire. Billy took a generous portion of fatback, bread, and a frying pan out of his knapsack, and began cooking dinner.
When it was over, they stretched out around the fire.
“Billy, do you like Hattie?” Terry asked, peeling the bark off a twig.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Billy replied.
“Why?” she, persisted.
“Is she really a necromancer, like Ted said?” Mitch asked, moving closer to the fire.
“I see Ted’s been talking to crazy old Josh,” Billy noted. “I don’t rightly know if she talks to the dead, but I’ve heard folks call her the devil’s helper.”
“If you’re the only one who’s ever taken people into the bayou and come out again, how come you don’t bring her back?” Terry asked.
“First of all, I’m not the only person to take groups hunting in the bayou. That’s just a stupid rumor. Secondly, Terry, Hattie doesn’t want to live in town. She’s content to live where she is. Besides, she’s my friend, and I wouldn’t force her to do something she doesn’t want. Guys, we need to leave. Something is terribly wrong in the swamp. Some kind of sickness is killing the animals, and I think it got old man Mason.”
“I told you Billy knows everything,” Terry said in a loud whisper to Mitch.
“I heard that, and I’m sorry to inform you that I don’t know everything,” Billy admitted truthfully. “No one does. Now, let’s get our gear together and move out. Terry, you pack my knapsack. Mitch and Ted, make sure to douse the fire, and throw plenty of dirt on it. Make sure it’s out. Then I want you to kick the ashes and spread them out until you’re sure there aren’t any sparks left,” Billy directed. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Ted nodded.
“Billy?” Terry sidled close to him. “I don’t feel good.”
Billy looked at her and cringed. Her eyes had a red tint around the iris, and she looked feverish. He felt her forehead and found it warm. “The quicker we get moving, the sooner we can get something to help you feel better. Everyone follow me.”
“What is it, Billy?” Terry asked, her freckles standing out sharply against her light tan.
“Hush….” Billy put a finger to his lips. His dark eyes scanned the marsh. “Something’s wrong. We’d better go now. Move slowly and look for sick animals and keep out of the water.” His voice was low and tense.
The gang sensed his concern and was immediately frightened. “Billy, what’s wrong?” Mitch grabbed his shirt sleeve.
“See that?” Billy asked, turning back to the swamp and pointing. Sections of the marsh had taken on a strange, eerie appearance that was quite noticeable. “The place is empty. There are no ground animals. Listen.” The chirping of the birds had ceased. “No sounds,” he explained. “See that?” He pointed to the mangled remains of a small creature. “That’s the marks of Hattie.”
“Hattie!” Terry exclaimed. “Let’s go find her!” She started towards the swamp.
“No!” Billy said sharply, grabbing the girl’s arm. “It’s best to leave her be when she’s out hunting. Let’s get out of here,” he commanded tersely.
“You guys stay here while I go check,” he instructed. He ran combat style, through the dense foliage toward the earlier sounds. He came to a tree and knelt behind it, gripping his rifle tensely. He gazed steadily across the pool of stagnant water and his eyes took in everything. Almost immediately, his sharp eyes noticed a body lying halfway in the water. Billy rose cautiously from his position and moved slowly toward the form. The alligator had large bumps that oozed a sickly green substance all over its body. Billy’s head snapped up at the slurping sound. Another gator half rose out of the water before flopping down and rolling over. It too was covered in bumps and blood poured from every orifice. A quick look around showed him all manner of animals lying dead in or near the water. Fish floated belly up; birds dropped from the sky, and others fell dead in their tracks. It was the absence of sound, however, that caused the hair on the back of his neck to stand upright. In a second he was up and running for the cover of the willow trees.
“You better not!” Ted warned. “Billy won’t like it. You know what he said. He doesn’t want us looking for her!” Ted laid a restraining hand on his sister’s shoulder. “You do it, and you’ve had it with Billy!”
“So?” Terry sneered, shaking off the hand. “I want to see this Hattie. I’m tired of just talking about her. Maybe she can give me medicine to make me feel better.”
“I’m warning you,” Ted stated. “You better stay here.”
“What are you going to do if I don’t?”
“Terry, please,” Ted begged. “You don’t want to make Billy mad, do you? If you do, he’s liable to take a stick to you. That might not even be the half of it.”
Terry looked around the small circle of friends. “Mitch, you with me?” she asked suddenly.
“No,” the boy replied, shaking his head. “I’m staying with them.”
“Chicken,” Terry taunted. “Well, I’m going. Bye.”
“No, ya aren’t,” Mitch spoke up, clenching his fists in an attempt to stop his friend by force if necessary. “I’m going to let ya have it!”
Terry also doubled up her fists, and the two were soon fighting. With one powerful punch, Terry knocked Mitch down. Before he could get up, Terry was off and running through the bushes. Ted noticed her gait appeared off. It was almost as though she was running like a drunk.
“Gee…thanks, fellas,” Mitch snapped sarcastically, getting up and dusting off his clothes. “Why didn’t you help me? You’re a great bunch of heroes, you are.”
Ted shrugged noncommittally, while Gary looked around the area, then bent and picked up a stone. With all his might, he threw it in the direction Terry had run. “Dang blast it, anyway!”
“I hate fighting,” Gary admitted.
“Let’s follow her,” Ted suddenly suggested.
“Oh, no,” Mitch protested. “And here comes Billy!” he yelped. “C’mon, help me get straightened out, so Billy won’t know we were fighting. Boy is he going to be mad when he finds Terry gone.”
“All right,” Billy announced as he approached the boys, “let’s….” Billy stopped talking, immediately noticing that Terry was not with the others. “Where’s Terry?” he demanded. “I don’t see her here.”
“She said she,” Ted’s thin face wrinkled in concentration as he hesitated, wondering how to tell Billy.
“Never mind,” Billy ordered. “How long has she been gone? Has it been five, ten minutes?”
“I don’t know,” Ted replied. “She hasn’t been gone very long. She wouldn’t listen to us. We were going to follow her, but we thought it best to wait for you. Right, fellas?”
The others nodded solemnly.
“Hmm….well…okay,” Billy nodded. “We’ll have to get moving now.” He eyed Mitch’s dirty face and clothing before turning to lead them further into the bayou.
“Where are we going?” Mitch asked when he caught up.
“Hattie’s,” Billy replied firmly.
“Hattie’s?” Ted squeaked. “But I thought you weren’t….” he choked, unable to complete his sentence.
“I know,” Billy interrupted, “but she’ll be able to locate her much sooner than us. Are any of you tired?”
“Yeah!” they all replied.
“Okay,” Billy sighed, looking behind him. “I guess we’re safe here for the time being.” He tossed his rifle on the ground and dropped down beside it. He eyed his friend again, making Mitch feel extremely uncomfortable. “Have you been in a fight?” Billy asked.
“No,” Mitch gulped.
“No?” Billy raised an eyebrow.
“Yes,” the boy mumbled his dark face pale as he watched Billy’s face take on a look of disgust.
“I hope you don’t lie to me again, Mitch,” Billy warned. “I don’t like it. Promise you won’t lie to me again?”
“Okay,” Mitch agreed immediately, not wanting to get on the wrong side of Billy.
“All right, now, our main concern is finding Terry,” Billy announced. “I’m going to take y’all to Hattie’s, but I want you to behave yourselves and don’t poke fun at her. She may seem strange to you because she lives alone in the swamps. Don’t be disappointed if she doesn’t live up to your expectations of a swamp witch.” Billy stood up, and his tall frame towered over the boys lying on the damp ground. “Get up,” he ordered. “We have to get moving.”
“That’s got to be Hattie’s,” she decided. “Oh, wait till I tell the others!” She stood up with the intention of returning to the others to tell them of her find, but was grabbed painfully by the shoulders. “Ouch!” she cried out. “Let go! I wasn’t doing anything!”
“In you go, you little varmint,” the old woman ordered, marching her into the cabin. She shoved her in a corner. “You be sick.”
Terry made a quick glance around the room and found it contained only the barest essentials: a table, chairs and cooking utensils. The floor was made of dirt, and there was no glass in the only window the room had. In the fireplace was a huge black kettle with some green liquid boiling. Terry gawked at her captor with open-mouthed wonder. The old woman had on a long, black dress and pointed shoes. Her long, black hair had a few strands of gray on the sides and at the back. When she spoke, she saw vacant spaces where her teeth had been. She was a terrifying figure. “Are you Hattie?” she asked her eyes big and round.
“Never you mind,” she rasped. “Who are you?”
“Terry Aldrich,” she replied.
“Terry, eh? What are you doing snooping around here? Why you in the bayou? No one comes here except my friend.”
“I… I didn’t mean any harm,” Terry stuttered. “Can I go now? Billy’s going to be awful mad if I don’t get back soon.”
“Billy? He’s finally coming back, eh?” she cackled. “Been an awful long time since I seen him. It must be near two months since he has been hunting.” There was a touch of fondness in her voice. “You stay here,” she directed sharply. “If you’re with Billy like you say, he’ll come here looking. If you ain’t…looks like I’ll have me a servant. Maybe I’ll sell you to the black market, or I could toss you into my pot once I get you over the sickness.” The old woman cackled. “Then they’ll all blame old Swamp Witch Hattie again, and no one except Billy will come bother me.”
“Why do you let Billy come if you don’t like people?” Terry managed to ask.
“He’s my friend,” Hattie replied simply. “He trusts me. He knows my truth! Besides, I got something awful to tell him.” Hattie scooped the liquid from the pot and poured it into a bowl. “Now, let me tend to you. Drink this.”
The insistent ringing of the telephone awakened the burly man abruptly. He grumbled to himself as he got up and tottered to the phone. “Hello,” he said into the receiver. “Sheriff Blake. May I help you?” He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, and then checked the alarm clock. It was only seven in the morning. He listened intently as the man with a northern twang spoke. “What boat? Crashed where?” Blake reached for his pants and pulled them on.
“Mason’s boat crashed into the pier.” The caller explained. “Man’s dead. Doc is over looking at him now. He said it looked like some strange disease he’d never seen. Doc wants to call the Communicable Disease Center. I got men cordoning off the area, so folks don’t get too close.”
“Give me five minutes. I’ll be right there.”
Blake pulled the squad car in front of the Garfield house, and Billy’s father went out of meet the sheriff.
“Morning, Sheriff,” he greeted amiably.
“Jean,” Blake nodded. “Did Billy and his friends get back from their camping trip?”
“Non monsieur,” he replied.
“Do you know where they are?” Blake persisted.
The old man leaned on his sturdy cane. “Co faire? Why?”
“I had hoped they were back and could tell me if they saw Mason on the river,” Blake replied.
“Is something wrong?”
“You think Billy had something to do with it?”
“No. I was hoping he could tell me if he saw Mason before he died and if things looked okay in the swamp.”
“Oui, je peux comprendre cela. Yes, I can understand that. I am sorry, you think he killed Mason.” Billy’s father replied. “I’m sorry you have to do this. We are not rich people, officer. You know,” the old man explained. “He lives by laws that are different from yours. My son has done no wrong according to the laws of survival and nature. He does not kill people.”
“No, no. That’s not why I’m looking for him. Some sickness killed Mason. I’m praying it’s not brewing in the swamp. Billy could tell me if things looked okay in there or if we have a problem.” The sheriff eyed Jean Garfield. “Vomment ca vas? How are you feeling?”
“Good. Merci Beaucoup, thank you very much.”
“Stay here until I get back or call for you,” Billy instructed the boys, then turned and ambled up to the shack and knocked loudly.
“See!” he heard the old woman exclaim. “I told you that old coon ass would come here first!” She opened the door and greeted the handsome young man with a crooked grin on her wrinkled face. “Billy! How are ya?”
“Hello, Hattie,” Billy replied with affection in his voice. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Too long,” she nodded. “What may I do for you?”
“Well,” Billy said thoughtfully, “I seemed to have lost a girl, about five feet five, with red hair and freckles. Seen her?”
“Have I!” she crowed. “Caught her snooping around my cabin, I did.”
“Now, Hattie, I hope you haven’t been scaring her with your tales,” Billy chided with a grin.
“Me, scare her!” she questioned innocently. “Ha! We have been having a merry time. Haven’t we, girl?” She moved aside to reveal Terry lying on the cot.
“Yes’m,” Terry nodded. Her complexion was still pale, and streaks of blood trailed from her eyes down her cheek.
“Billy, bring them kids inside for a bite to eat before you take her to the doc in town,” she instructed. “She isn’t going to need him because I gave her the cure.”
“All right, if you say so,” he agreed. “Guys, come here!” he called loudly.
Between bites of Creole Jambalaya and hot buttered corn pone, the teens listened spellbound while Hattie and Billy talked about previous hunting episodes. Eventually, the conversation got around to the death of Mason and the sickness in the swamp.
“Hattie, you don’t know anything about the death of Mason, do you?” Billy asked.
“Yup!” she nodded honestly. “I came upon him unexpectedly and he was acting strange like the animals did. He had swamp plague bumps. I told him to drink this potion I have been making for weeks since seeing the sick animals. But he wouldn’t. He said he wasn’t sick. Guess he died, uh?”
“I see,” Billy muttered thoughtfully. “Yeah, he died. A lot of critters in the swamp are dying, gators, fish, turtles, birds. They’re all dying.” Billy looked at his friends. “Terry was the first in the water and now she’s sick. For two hours now, I haven’t been feeling too good myself.”
“I think y’all have better drink my potion. Tested it on myself when I started feeling sick. It took me two days to get better.” She ladled the smelly potion from the pot into bowls and handed it to each of them. “Don’t know if it’ll cure everyone. Hope it does.”
“Poo-ye-yi! Dang, Hattie that smells like the devil done peed in it.” Billy wrinkled his nose and closed his eyes. He lifted the bowl to his lips and gulped the potion. It took all his strength not to vomit the vile fluid back up. His body shuddered, and he sucked in air as the potion burned a fiery trail down his throat to his stomach. “Go on guys. Drink up.” He gasped.
It took a long time for the teens to get the potion down. Hattie busied herself piling blankets on the floor to make a place for each of them to sleep. She laid her hands on Billy. “You’re burning up,” she whispered. “The red eyes and bleeding comes next. Then you get vomiting, and the runs. As long as you don’t get the bumps, you’ll live.”
The day had started with the promise of a hot sunny afternoon. For the residents of Tarawa, this day would be anything but normal. People gathered near where the boat was moored and wondered why there was an ambulance. They whispered among themselves as they watched the body being taken off the boat and loaded into the waiting ambulance.
The first case of swamp plague in the town occurred at the clinic storing Mason’s body. It started as a sniffle, then a sneeze, runny nose, coughing, and fever followed quickly. Within hours, the staff at the clinic was showing signs of red eyes, bleeding and diarrhea. They vomited copious amounts of black coffee ground-like material.
The next cases appeared in the diner and Harold’s grocery store. From there the sickness spread like wildfire throughout the town. Even though the sheriff had called for assistance from the Communicable Disease Center, they had yet to mobilize. The governor called in the National Guard to quarantine the area. No one was allowed in or out of Tarawa, but that didn’t stop the kayak type boats called pirogues from slipping in via the multiple waterways of the swamp.
The newspaper men descended in mass but were out of the town, but no reports appeared in the news. Nor did any photographs ever make it into the press. It was as though Tarawa didn’t exist.
It was a cool gray dawn, and all the burning wood was merely a heap of smoldering ashes in the fireplace. “Billy?” Ted rolled over and shook his shoulder.
Billy groaned and opened his eyes. They were blood red, and his head ached terribly. “What?’ he croaked. His tongue felt rough against his palate.
“I don’t feel good.” Ted leaned forward and vomited into the bucket Hattie had placed beside him.
“You are running a high fever, boy,” Hattie said as she chewed on a plant stalk. I’m boiling you some black birch to help with that.”
Terry came over and looked at her twin brother. “Hattie!” she cried. “He’s got the bumps on his arms!”
“Hush, child. I know that.” Hattie soaked a cloth in water and placed it on Ted’s forehead.
“Billy,” Hattie knelt beside him. “I’m sorry son, but Gary died last night. It only took him an hour from when he first showed sickness. The potion didn’t work on him.” She turned to the only remaining healthy person. “Mitch, I want you to get more wood and build up the fire.”
The next two days were the worst Billy had ever experienced. Ted rallied briefly during the night before succumbing to the sickness the following afternoon. His screams and ragged breathing were sheer tortures.
Mitch ran in and out of the shack gathering everything Hattie asked for and some things she didn’t want. He felt overwhelmed and wondered if God had forsaken them. He wondered if he was losing an essential part of his humanity by witnessing the suffering and deaths of his friends. He felt like he might need mental assistance if he survived this horror.
Terry suffered several relapses before finally overcoming the sickness that left her feeling weak.
Billy lost all track of time. He slept fitfully and often dreamed about the swamp and his family. At times, his nightmares were more real to him than the present. He developed the fever, muscle aches, flu symptoms, bleeding and diarrhea but never got the bumps. Over time, they recovered from the sickness and felt eager to head home but also dreaded what they would find.
“Well, thanks for the potion. I wish we could stay longer, but I should be getting this stuff to town. I hope someone is still alive.”
“All right,” Hattie nodded almost sadly.
“Bye, Hattie,” they said together, as they trooped out the door single file.
“Good-bye, Hattie,” Billy said softly. “Take care of yourself, you hear?”
“You, too, Billy,” she replied, standing on tiptoe to kiss his rugged cheek.
They made the journey back to town in silence, occasionally broken by a comment about Hattie. “You know, Hattie isn’t so bad,” Terry decided. “I think she’s real nice, in fact.”
“Me, too,” Mitch agreed, “even if she couldn’t help Mason.”
“Terry, hurry up, will you?” Mitch turned to see his friend looking at something in the brush.
Only Billy remained silent. He worried about what they would find in town. Did Mason’s boat make it that far? Is so, he wondered if anyone was alive.
“Billy, which way do we go now?” Mitch asked.
The direction they had taken became a wall of impenetrable wood, with openings to the left and right. “Left,” Billy replied. As soon as they arrived at Devil’s Stump, Billy said, “All right, this is as far as you’re going. I’m going to check out the town and be back for you.”
“Billy!” Terry yelled from behind him. “Help! My leg! Something’s got hold of me!”
Billy turned to see Terry holding her leg, the bottom of which was caught in a rusty trap. He knelt beside the tearful girl and began working with the old piece of iron.
“Okay, when I say pull, you take your leg out pronto because I can’t hold it for long,” Billy instructed. “Understand?”
“Okay.” Billy opened the trap momentarily. “Pull it out!” he ordered.
Terry obeyed, and Billy let go of the trap. He then cleaned the wound with water from his canteen. He cut two sticks with his knife and put one on either side of her leg, untied his neckerchief and tied it around the splints and leg.
“That’ll do for now,” Billy decided, “but it looks like I’ll be going take you both into town with me, after all. I don’t think Terry can walk on that.” He picked up the girl and began walking back to the clearing. “I do declare Terry you sure are accident prone.”
“Look! Here they come now!” A man shouted to the people, who were standing in the street. As they approached, the people moved aside and allowed them to pass. Billy walked through the center of the group and up to the sheriff. He placed Terry in the sheriff’s arms.
“Her leg got caught in a trap, but she should be all right,” Billy explained. His normally pleasant voice was low, heavy and quiet with sadness. He looked around at the people. Each person showed various stages of the disease.
“I’m sorry, Billy,” he said unhappily. “Your family didn’t make it. Most everyone in town is dead except the few you see here.”
“I brought a potion that can cure this sickness, but I don’t know if there is enough. We’re going to have to give it to those who have the best chance of surviving. I’m sorry.” He hung his head.
“The Communicable Disease Center just arrived. Maybe they can analyze this potion and make more. So many of us have died from the sickness Mason brought. This town is a ghost town, and they’re talking about letting everyone die out.”
“But the sickness is in the animals too,” Billy explained. “It’s in the swamp. How are they going to stop it from spreading?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it will die out like other outbreaks have.”
“I hope so.”
It took thirty days until the Communicable Disease Center successfully duplicated the potion. Within that month, they could not find any additional animal deaths. By then all but twenty people in town had died. The outbreak was declared officially over.
N.A.S.A. put a man on the moon in June, in the middle of the outbreak in Tarawa. Within a year, the Communicable Disease Center had been renamed the Centers for Disease Control. The war in Vietnam continued to wage on. War protests were held all over the country. Race riots came and went. The sixties closed with Woodstock and other festivals, some of which turned violent.
Mitch took up the butcher trade and turned his family into neat little packages of hamburger. He now resides in a hospital for the criminally insane. Every five or six years he manages to escape and starts new stories of bogeys roaming swamps. Terry did a turn in prison for dealing drugs. While incarcerated she converted to Christianity and became an exorcist.
In his grief, Billy returned to the swamp and learned all that Hattie could teach him about healing and survival. In time, he became known as Garfield the Swamp Man.
Hattie and Billy agreed to keep watch on the area. Something deep down inside told them this disease, this hideous plague would be back.
Copyright© FM Burgett 2019 All rights reserved.
The right of FM Burgett to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 First published as an e-Book by FM Burgett. All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincident.
Burgett, FM (2015-02-21) Bayou Story. FM Burgett First Publication.
Burgett, FM (2019-08-31). Bayou Story. FM Burgett. Ebook Edition.
Burgett, FM (2019-08-31). Bayou Story. FM Burgett. Paperback Edition
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author / publisher.
Bayou Story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Any errors are entirely made by the author.
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Part One is really Wow!