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The River Sisters

resized ladies on bluff

Chapter 1: The River Sisters

Everyone in Skunk Holler remembers the River Sisters. Half the town locked their doors whenever they passed by, while the rest of us cheered them on (under our breath).

I rode my bike out to the old River Place one time on a dare. Coming down the levee road, I was surprised to see their long gray wooden houseboat set up on the muddy bank, rock-throwing distance to the water (this was before the government kicked out the folks living on the White River). I had pictured their home bobbing at the end of a towline.

The yard was deserted, which struck me as odd, and the houseboat had imitation brick paneling on the walls, which looked even odder. When I got to the top of the rickety steps to knock on the screen door, I noticed a cicada sitting on the wooden railing. It stared with big black eyes like some guard dog insect from another world, all quiet, not like any junebug I ever saw. Next thing I knew I was tumbling backwards down the steps to land on my butt in the packed dirt. As I tore off down the path I swear that bug was laughing at me.

My favorite thing about the River Sisters was their laughter. Mary, the eldest, had a golden voice to match her yellow hair, and her giggle was like a little ringing bell. I saw a halo around Mary River once, but I never told anybody. The younger sisters were said to be twins, although I don’t know as I believe that. Lily was ginger-haired with eyes like a cat and a quiet laugh like a purr. Poppy River, on the other hand, was tan and brown as Lily was pale. Poppy’s laugh was loud and ripe and jolly.

The more things folks around Skunk Holler did to try and make the River Sisters cry, the more those girls laughed—they’d laugh right in your face. They even laughed at Old Man Dump, the slumlord of Skunk Holler. He didn’t like the River Sisters selling their wares in town; he said they needed a permit. But every weekend the weather was nice, they came to town to sell all kinds of stuff. They’d set their willow baskets spread out on a quilt under a big shade tree on the courthouse lawn (Old Man Dump didn’t like that, either) and before you knew it, every kid for miles around would show up on foot or bicycle to see what the River Sisters were up to. Needles, yarn or thread? Just ask Lily, who tats lace while she barters. Want some homemade molasses candy? Poppy makes the best. The older girls crowded around Mary, who sold little glass vials of perfume she made out of flowers. She also made remedies from combinations of flowers. Some folks say Mary’s jasmine tea was a love potion, but I don’t know what it tastes like.

One time I got real sick and the doctor couldn’t figure it out. My fever kept rising and Momma got so scared she sent for Mary River, who came right away. It was Mary’s flower tea broke the fever. That was when I saw the halo I never told about, like rays of sun filling up the room as she leaned over me and whispered something I didn’t catch. Her gray eyes looked ancient and wise, though she couldn’t have been but a couple years older than me.

It got to where us kids had to form a human chain on Saturday afternoons in order to keep the town bullies from coming up under the tree and bothering the River Sisters. We pretended it was all a game of Red Rover, but everybody knew we were guarding the girls. The only one we couldn’t guard them from was Old Man Dump. Whenever he showed up all the kids scattered.

Old Man Dump took to campaigning for Justice of the Peace, saying he was aiming to “clean out those river rats living down in the bottomlands.” I never met anybody in Skunk Holler that cast a single vote their whole life, but next thing we all know, it’s Mayor Dump parading around like he’s the biggest hog at the trough. After that, instead of picnics under the shade tree with the River Sisters singing songs and telling stories, it was only Old Man—I mean, Mayor—Dump, speechifying.

“Those River Sisters have no adult supervision,” Mayor Dump would bellow at anyone passing by court square. “There ain’t a person in town ever even seen their parents!” he’d splutter as his face got redder and redder. Everybody had to admit this was true. Whenever a brave soul ventured down to the riverbank to deliver a message to the family, there was always some excuse. “Daddy’s off checking his trotlines,” Mary liked to say, but her wink and giggle made a joke out of it.
The girls’ mother was said to be a legendary beauty, although no portrait is known to exist. The school principal and Preacher Barton couldn’t seem to catch Mrs. River at home no matter how often they tried. Poppy explained more than once, “Momma’s off catching a swarm of wild bees—she hoots at danger!”

Spring came, bringing days and days of gray rain. School let out so everybody in town could sandbag the levee. Mayor Dump holed up in the one dry spot: the County Courthouse. We heard he was studying ancient deeds and plats, liens and property lines.

On the third day we abandoned the sand bags and retreated to the court square, the only high ground for miles. Nobody knew what to do. Mayor Dump flung open the courthouse doors and stepped onto the portico, unfurling his big black umbrella. I saw him smirk at the captive audience. We were all too exhausted to move and too muddy to come inside the grand old building, so we stood in the downpour while Mayor Dump surveyed us, shaking his head.

“Here we stand, citizens of Skunk Holler,” he intoned, “having worked valiantly for days to shore up that levee yonder.” The crowd shifted uneasily at such a compliment, temporarily distracted from the fact Mayor Dump hadn’t lifted a finger.

“And yet,” he swelled under the umbrella, holding up a sheaf of yellowed papers. “And yet, those people—that pack of squatters down in the bottoms, could knock a hole in that levee at any moment. Those river rats would not think twice about flooding out this town. Everybody knows river rats are crazy! These papers right here, they—they explain how the property—these papers…” he broke off in a shower of spluttering.

We all stared at the Mayor. “Well, if y’all ain’t gonna do anything about the situation, I’ll just have to deputize myself,” he grunted, stuffing the papers in a coat pocket. Then he reached into a different pocket (Old Man Dump was known for his patterned waistcoats) and drew forth a black pistol. At this the crowd began a low rumble, emitting a bass note not unlike a restive flock or herd does when alarmed.

“Follow me, citizens of Skunk Holler! I’m heading down the levee to run them river rats outta town for good!” Mayor Dump steadied his umbrella and walked down the steps. A strange thing happened as the crowd parted to let him pass. People shook themselves like wet dogs, and half the folks streamed inside the (now unguarded) courthouse. The rest of us shrugged and followed Mayor Dump.

“What you think’s gonna happen?” one of my classmates, Mattie Lively, said as we trudged behind the line of muddy people. The water was rising fast. I couldn’t answer, and the closer we got to the bottoms, the more I fretted. Up ahead, Mayor Dump’s umbrella flapped brokenly like some evil bat. I began to pray the River Sisters would get wind of us coming and hide.

“At least he can’t burn ‘em out in all this rain,” Mattie said. The crowd, sensing the nearness of the Mayor’s prey, quickened pace. From the front of the line a boy hollered and instantly more kids picked up the cry. “Sounds like we treed us some coons,” the Mayor yelled.

Mattie and I pushed through the throng until we had a better view. The river was running high and dark halfway up the levee bank. The shrieking kids drowned out the Mayor. “Look!” they cried, jumping and pointing. The old gray houseboat had come loose from its stacked stone foundation—it was floating away. The windows were shut and curtains pulled so we couldn’t see inside, but as it turned slowly into the current, we saw a puppy—Mary’s hound dog—sitting on the back porch, just wagging and watching us all up on the bank waving and screaming like crazy. Mattie tugged my sleeve—the Mayor was lifting his pistol! Without even thinking, I reached down and chunked a mud clod at him, hard, right as he aimed.

Mayor Dump got un-elected that day by unanimous vote, on account of accidentally shooting Preacher Barton in the butt. Everyone in Skunk Holler breathed a little easier once’t we didn’t have a mayor any more. But nobody ever saw or heard from the River Sisters again, and I still wonder about them to this day. Especially Mary.

Grandpa Joe

Chapter 2: Freshwater Pearls

The summer after the River Sisters went away, I got sent down to Saint Joan to stay with my great-uncle. My mother was expecting; she had the morning sickness so bad it was decided I would spend summer break on the White River, on Uncle Harold’s houseboat.

I could hardly wait to get a hook in the water and when Daddy dropped me off, it felt like coming home. Nothing had changed since my last visit: Uncle Harold was just as skinny and bent, with wrinkly brown skin like deer leather. The White River was still green and endless, carrying the smell of a million flowering things. Uncle Harold’s houseboat smelled like wet dog, pipe tobacco and fried fish, which we ate a lot. In other words, it was heaven.

I played with the Dupflautz kids down the way, a German family that treated me like a dark-haired version of one of their gangly towheaded boys and girls. Miz Dupflautz made the best bread pudding with whiskey sauce; between that and Altha Ray’s fruit pies, I was eating better than at home, where sweets were for special occasions.

Altha Ray was Uncle Harold’s lady friend. She came by every few days to tidy up the place and fix a big lunch. She and Uncle Harold liked to sit in rocking chairs on the deck, staring off at the sunset. Uncle Harold’s other friend, Mr. S.E., came over Sunday afternoons to play cards and “have a nip.” Uncle Harold had a nip most every evening, often falling asleep in his big easy chair in the living room. My room was a little space behind the kitchen, with just a cot and a bookshelf, but cozy. Bo, Uncle Harold’s lab mix, slept with me, something Momma never would have allowed.
We went to Saint Joan once a week, to the Mercantile. It was a relief to learn Uncle Harold wouldn’t be taking me to church—he said Sunday school for him was fishing with Mr. S.E., outside under the sky. And since “S.E.” stood for “Saint Elmo,” I figured they must have a line on the hereafter.

Every time Uncle Harold went to pay at the Mercantile, whether for salt, sugar and flour or penny nails and lye soap, he pulled out a leather pouch, reached inside and handed something to Mr. Bullard. It dawned on me that Uncle Harold was paying for his groceries with pearls! Freshwater pearls from White River mussels. I began snooping to see where he kept his pearls and sure enough, one afternoon I peeked through the window as he was lifting up his mattress. He took out a small wooden box and opened it—it was chock full of pearls. So, next time Uncle Harold had a nip and fell asleep in the chair, I went and snuck one little pearl. I wasn’t greedy; I only wanted one teeny-tiny pearl.

When I showed it to the Dupflautz kids the next day, they did not seem impressed. The eldest went and rummaged inside their houseboat and came back holding a matchbox. Inside was a pair of long, skinny pearls. “These are slabs,” the boy said. “River tears,” explained a sister. “Two river tears pulled from the same shell’s bad luck.”

That afternoon Uncle Harold asked me to run to town and get the evening paper, so I hopped on the bicycle and took off, forgetting I still had the pearl in my pocket. On the way back I came to a one-lane bridge and saw a big dry-lander boy blocking the way. The Dupflautz kids had warned me about this bully. They called him “The Troll” because of his frown, and he was glaring at me now.

“Toll bridge!” he yelled. “Empty your pockets.” When I hesitated he rushed over, knocking me off the bike. I reached in my pocket and slowly handed him the forgotten pearl. “I bet there’s more where this came from!” crowed the Troll. I took off running through the woods, clutching tightly to Uncle Harold’s newspaper. After doubling back a bunch of times and crawling through the swamp, I figured I had lost the Troll. I finally got home and handed Uncle Harold the tattered paper along with a story about getting chased by a swarm of hornets and leaving the bike in the woods. He gave me a funny look and said I could get the bike in the morning. I went to bed praying the Troll would leave us be.

That night, Bo woke us up barking. Footsteps sounded outside on the stage plank as I ran to the living room. “Uncle Harold!” I yelled, “It’s the Troll—he’s coming for your pearls!” In an instant my Uncle grabbed his shotgun and was out the door. There was a single shot followed by unearthly howling.

“This no-good’s gone and cursed my pearls!” Uncle Harold thundered as I stepped outside to see the Troll writhing on deck, his hand full of rock salt. “The only way to take off the curse is to throw that box of pearls into the Everlasting Pit!” Uncle Harold ducked inside and retrieved the box. Handing it to me, he dropped his voice as the bully thrashed and moaned.

“Take these—stay gone til this blows over, and then sneak back here,” he said. “That way we don’t have to worry your parents with this mess.” I began to wail. I didn’t want to throw away my Uncle’s treasure. Uncle Harold leaned in so close his whiskery whiskey-breath tickled my ear. “You think these the only pearls I got hid away? Listen: I was a mussel sheller for 40 years. I got little cedar boxes like this one buried at every cold spring in Arkansas County. I got pearls to last til the Resurrection.”

“But where do I go?” I cried as he stuffed the box inside my shirt and threw his jacket over my shoulders. “You just head up the road and catch the first bus comes your way,” he said. “Don’t be scared—there’s a full moon to see by. Just go til you git where you’re going!” With that, Uncle Harold gave me such a shove that I staggered off into the night.

I was asleep on the bench outside the Saint Joan post office when the sound of voices woke me. The sun was up and a big green school bus was parked at the stop, surrounded by a bunch of kids. The box was still tucked inside my undershirt. I fell in line with the gaggle of kids and got a few curious stares as I took a seat in the back.

“Are you with the CCC Floating Camp?” asked a bespectacled boy who plunked down next to me. “I never seen you before.” When I didn’t say anything, the kid started talking a mile a minute about the “Big Dam.” At first I thought he was cussing. But after a few miles of listening to him yack, I gathered we were on a field trip to see a dam getting built up north. The bus was full of kids of Civilian Conservation Corps workers that lived in a big string of houseboats near Saint Joan.
“They’re just getting started on building the dam,” the kid said. “Right now it’s just a big ol’ pit. My dad says it’ll be years before it’s finished and fills up with water.” I stared out the window. The everlasting pit. A dam upstream from Uncle Harold—what would he say to that? The bus stopped for lunch and the boy, whose name was Nelson, shared his food with me. By now he figured I was a mute and had quit asking questions.

It was late afternoon when we got to the construction site. From the road it looked like a mass of scaffolding, planks and catwalks. The grown-ups herded us to a hillside park with a vantage. A CCC man in khakis and a rounded hat started lecturing about the dam. It was going to be as big as an Egyptian pyramid. I spied the nearest overlook—there was an iron railing off to the side. Hugging the cedar box, I bolted.

The CCC man grabbed my collar just as I threw the box over the rail. He shook me til my head rattled, cussing the whole time, but I saw the little wooden box sail into the air and pop open, spilling its precious cargo into the gorge. “Does anyone know this kid?” the CCC man hollered, and Nelson piped up. “He’s my cousin, mister. He’s deaf and dumb—please don’t hurt him.” It was an impressive job; Nelson’s chin trembled as he fumbled with his glasses and wiped at his eyes. The man shrugged and let me go.

When we got back to Saint Joan I was glad to find Uncle Harold had fixed everything. Before long, everybody in town was talking about how the Troll was stealing Altha Ray’s peaches and she fired rock salt at him. Consensus was he’d gotten what he deserved. Everything went back to usual: I swam every day, Mr. S.E. came to fish and play cards, and Altha Ray baked pies for us. Uncle Harold said I did a good thing, throwing those pearls into the pit at the dam site. He never mentioned it again.

But later, after I went home and school started up again, I dreamed about that dam. In the dream the giant gray concrete wall was finished. Behind it a deep dark lake was filled to the brim. But at the base of the dam little pinholes were forming, tiny holes the size of seed pearls, that bubbled and spread as I watched until the whole dam was pocked and crumbling. The giant thing exploded into chunks of tumbling cement as water foamed and roared into the gorge.

I had that dream for years, long after the dam was built and the downstream water temperature dropped, killing off the White River mussels and their hidden pearls. But I still take comfort at the thought of Uncle Harold’s cedar boxes, buried beside every cold spring in Arkansas County.

girl at grave

Chapter 3: The Girl in the Graveyard

What is it about sixth grade that it’s the worst year of your life? I pondered this question throughout the long, dreary winter. Skunk Holler was cold and drab, and school was a hard road all of a sudden. The newborn infant said to be my brother (I figured it for a changeling) took up everybody’s time.

Momma stayed sickly after it was born. I couldn’t stand to hear the baby’s colicky cry; made my skin crawl. The day I came home with a report card full of D’s, Dad said he’d had enough. He was taking me down to Saint Joan for a second chance at sixth grade. Any other time, I would have killed to stay on Uncle Harold’s houseboat, but change school? I broke out in hives fretting about it. Momma slathered me with some nasty goo that didn’t even stop the itch. Maybe she was trying to run me off; her strategy worked, as I became too miserable not to leave.

When Dad pulled up to the riverbank, I didn’t look around. Seemed like tears that had been in my eyes for months were still stuck there. Gathering my gear, I went straight to my old room while he talked with Uncle Harold. When Dad left, I hardly said goodbye. After tossing around in my cot sniffling, I got up, curious as to why the place was so quiet. A note on the kitchen table said: “Gone to town. Back shortly.” Next to the note was Altha Ray’s cake tin. Inside was her specialty: chess cake. It tasted so good I began to cry.

Uncle Harold came home with the makings of a dinner party—“just the two of us.” He presented me with a harmonica and after dinner showed me some tricks on it. At bedtime I found a little wooden whistle on my pillow and brought it to Uncle Harold. He was in the deck chair smoking his pipe, watching the bats swoop. “That’s for you,” he grunted. “It’s a quill I carved out of cedar. Put it on a string and wear it so’s you can whistle for help if you ever get in a pinch.”
I thanked him and went back to bed, stashing the quill under my pillow.

That first day walking to school the Dupflautz kids fell in beside, laughing and joking like old times. The teacher at the one-room schoolhouse seemed a nice old lady. When school let out, I wandered off by myself, distracted by Spring. The dirt road came to an end at a grassy entrance bounded by pillars—the Saint Joan Cemetery. Rows of skinny gray headstones decked with spirea and redbud stretched into the distance. Some of the graves were decorated with mussel shells. As I stared, a voice called, “Can you see me?”

I jumped. Was one of the Dupflautz girls yanking my chain? “Yoo-hoo,” came the voice. “Catch me if you dare!” I darted between the rows, zigzagging toward the back of the graveyard. Whoever she was, she was quick. A wall of thick blackberries blocked the way and something whizzed by my nose—a hickory nut! Then one bounced hard off my head. “Hey!” I yelled. “Is this any way to treat a stranger?” The hail of nuts stopped and a girl stepped out from behind a nearby cedar tree. Her dress was the yellow of jonquils; her hair and skin and eyes were dark as my own. For such a petite thing she was a crack shot with a nut. We studied each other and she asked, “What’s your quill sound like?” I reached up to where the string necklace was tucked inside my shirt. I hadn’t even thought to try it out yet.

Setting down my books and lunch pail, I fished out the whistle and gave it a blast. The shrill sound made us both jump. “Hush!” she hissed. “You want to wake the dead?” Giving my hand a quick shake, she said, “Pleased to meet you, stranger. My name’s Helen Spence.” I mumbled something about getting back to the houseboat and she nodded. “Our houseboat’s near to your Uncle’s. He’s friends with my daddy, Cicero. There’s a storm coming, so I’ll see you tomorrow.” I picked up my things and turned to find her gone. It was late when I got home and Uncle Harold gave me a funny look when I asked if there was a storm coming. I went to bed without mentioning the girl and her dad.

Next day at school I got blamed for something I didn’t do. One of the big kids in the back row found a flying squirrel on the way to school and hid it inside his lunch pail. When the teacher was up front writing on the chalkboard, the kid tossed that flying squirrel into the rafters. Everyone watched it swoop around, closer and closer to the teacher’s piled-up gray hair (she was a Pentecostal). When that squirrel landed on her braid there was pandemonium. After the screaming died down, the bully pinned it all on me. Despite and because of the pleadings of the Dupflautz kids (“Everyone knows river rats stick together,” the bully insisted) I was doomed. The teacher whupped me in front of the whole class. Some nice old lady—she swung like a ballplayer!

When the bell rang, I ran straight to the cemetery, but Helen was nowhere to be found. Sprawling in dense moss under a shade tree, I fell asleep. I always sleep hard after a whupping, and this was no catnap—I woke with a start to find it was dusk already. What would Uncle Harold say?

“Your uncle sent me to fetch you home,” Helen’s musical voice called from the shadows. I grabbed my books and followed as night came on. Helen moved swiftly, surefooted along the paths, not saying a word until we got to the cold spring gurgling in the dark. “Our place is half a mile up from here. Now, run home—there’s a storm coming,” and she vanished into the night.

Uncle Harold’s houseboat shone like a beacon through the trees, lights in every window. When I came in all I could do was run up and hug him. We talked about my bad day over second helpings of sausage, grits and a pot of strong coffee. “Your first school whupping deserves your first nip,” observed Uncle Harold, reaching for his flask. Pouring a splash into my coffee, he winked. “Today was probably the most fun that teacher-lady had since Prohibition.”

In the morning I begged not to go to school, but Uncle Harold deemed it necessary for my self-respect. I sullenly avoided everybody, even the Dupflautzes. At 3 o’clock I bolted from the schoolhouse and found Helen standing just inside the entrance to the cemetery. “Can’t catch me!” she taunted, and the chase was on.

We ran laughing among the headstones, tagging each other “it.” I collapsed on a patch of clover, panting hard. “Calf rope! I give!” Helen sat down, primly arranging her skirt. She wore stockings like my Aunt Eula used to wear: white cotton fishnet. After I caught my breath (Helen wasn’t even winded) she put her finger to her lips and gave a shush. Slowly she pulled the hem of her dress over her knee. Tucked behind the mesh stocking was a roll of one hundred dollar bills—biggest wad of cash I ever saw. “That’s $300,” she said. “Daddy needed a place to hide his money.” As I gaped like a mooncalf she jumped up and ran off, her laughter fading in the distance.

I got home before sunset to find Uncle Harold by the stage plank, scanning the sky. “You been talking about a storm,” he said. Dark blue clouds boiled in the distance, coming in fast from the west. After checking the tow ropes we moved deck chairs inside. As we were eating supper, a mighty thunderclap shook the air and the rain came down. “Do you think Helen and Cicero will be all right in this storm?” I asked, and an odd thing happened—Uncle Harold’s head jerked like somebody struck him across the face. Pushing back from the table, he strode to the door and opened it a crack. Flashes of light, roaring wind and rain burst in. “Time for bed,” he said, shutting the door.

A thunderclap woke me from a dead sleep and I was instantly wide awake. Uncle Harold’s snoring was loud as the storm. I pulled on a pair of rain boots and a slicker. Grabbing a lantern, I lit it and made my way out of the houseboat. I had to know if Helen was all right.

I slipped, barking my shin on the rain-slick stage plank. The footpath was easier going, though the trees were thrashing like crazy. I made it past the cold spring but saw no sign of a houseboat. “Helen!” I screamed. The rain ceased and the gale dropped to a whisper. I could hear the clicking of cottonwood leaves. With the force of the sun, a bright light exploded overhead. There was a cracking sound — I turned to see an oak split in two. Branches crashed down, knocking me to the ground, and the lantern flew off into the dark. Reaching for the quill, I blew as hard as I could over and over, whistling til all my air was gone. I must have fainted because when my eyes opened I was in Uncle Harold’s easy chair, bundled in a horse blanket. Bo was licking my hand, wagging, and the storm was subsiding. My Uncle brewed coffee as I checked for injuries—just a barked shin. “How’d I get here?” I asked.

“I found you on the doorstep. Do you believe in miracles?” Uncle Harold held out a yellowed newspaper clipping with the headline “Outlaw Shot After Escape.” He shook his head, muttering, “They called her the Swamp Angel, but she’s just a little river girl.”

The article was ugly as it was short: “Helen Spence, the houseboat girl who killed the man on trial for killing her father Cicero Spence, was shot down after her fifth escape from Arkansas Women’s Prison. The Grand Jury is investigating claims Spence was the victim of a plot by corrupt prison officials. Spence was buried today beside her father in Saint Joan Cemetery’s potter’s field.” I put down the paper. There was no houseboat by the cold spring, not for years and years, anyway.

A telegram arrived in the morning saying Momma and the baby both came down with scarlet fever and died two days apart. I got sent back to Skunk Holler, but this time my tears did not stick inside. I cried them out, slept hard and woke up convinced Momma knew I loved her (I still figured the baby for a changeling). Helen Spence saved me from the storm. She showed me that time, like the river, doesn’t flow in a straight line.

lagrue bridge

Chapter 4: Back on the Bayou

Momma was buried with the baby in her arms at her kin’s plot in Vine, a flyspeck in the Delta near Saint Joan. Dad and I went back to Skunk Holler to tend to his affairs. I wasn’t sure what that meant. He spent a lot of time sitting in his undershirt at the kitchen table, staring at piles of documents, chin in hand, and quit going to his job at the mill. When Monday came around and I had to go back to school, I learned right quick how things would be different from here on in. The kids at Skunk Holler had seen me leave before and come back to all this. It was a case of mutual bewilderment. They didn’t know what to say and shrank away as if I were contagious. Mattie Lively tried to be nice. She came up and blurted, “Your momma was an angel!” but it bothered me. I remembered something Dad used to say whenever Momma nagged him about going to church: “She’s no angel,” I bawled at poor Mattie. “She’s a feisty hellcat with a scratchy tongue!”

I took to skipping school and when Dad found out, he didn’t have the heart to whup me. The rats’ nest of documents on the kitchen table was growing more coffee-stained and crumpled by the day, so when Dad was napping I tried reading them. Most didn’t make any sense, but there were some official looking papers from Momma’s Aunt Adeline that caught my eye. She passed away back when Momma first took sick. I shook Dad awake and read out loud from the papers. He gave me a bear hug, tears in his eyes—he hadn’t been able to puzzle out the cursive on the deed. We had inherited Aunt Adeline’s dirt farm—10 acres and a creek! Slinging me by the arms, Dad danced like a Holy Roller. He had a mission now.

We were packing up the house when a knock sounded—a rapid rat-a-tat-tat that stopped us cold. “It’s Aunt Eula,” Dad gasped, and we instinctively looked around for a place to hide. She barged in the unlocked door talking a streak and carrying a tattered parasol, the source of the knock. “Did you not receive my letters? I have written you precisely every three days since the funeral.” Aunt Eula nodded coldly at me like she always did, and Dad escorted her to the sun parlor where they could chat. Aunt Eula was Aunt Adeline’s sister. Momma used to say she was a lot of fun back in the day, when Eula and Adeline were flappers. Adeline stayed sweet and kind but Aunt Eula soured up the older she got. I guessed she must be about 90.

After she left in her usual huff, Dad gave me the bad news: Aunt Eula was going to be our landlady. Something about her being the executioner of Momma’s estate. “Cheer up, Dad,” I offered hopefully. “Aunt Eula can’t last forever.”

The trip to Vine was a slog but we made it by sundown. We spotted the house down a dirt road, a small wooden structure framed by a pair of big pecan trees. The yard was all grown up with weeds but the key worked and once inside, we both flopped into the nearest chair and looked around. “Better than the company house in Skunk Holler, ain’t it?” sighed Dad. The front room was dark, so I opened all the curtains. It was definitely a little old lady kind of place, but real nice. “Momma would like this,” I blurted without thinking. I followed Dad into the kitchen. Wood stove, red-handled pump over the sink, a deal table and chairs—he worked the pump until a stream of water flowed into the sink. “Yep, it’s a peach of a place,” he said sadly.

Dad dropped me off at Uncle Harold’s for a few days while he made some repairs to the house. As the Ford rumbled off, Uncle Harold elbowed me, saying, “Want to see a surprise?” I followed him to the kitchen; in a corner on the linoleum was a shoebox. Bo was guarding it, wagging. Inside the box, a tabby kitten peeked out of a nest of lambswool.

I was thunderstruck—here was my first pet. Momma frowned upon “house animals” as she called them. Every turtle, lizard, frog—even chipmunk—that I smuggled home eventually got sent back to the woods, no matter how I begged. All of a sudden, the kitten made a sound like a mudcat does when you pull it out of the water. Scooping up the ball of fur, I asked its name. “That’s your job,” said Uncle Harold. ”She’s all yours.”

“Mudcat. Her name’s Mudcat,” I said, rubbing my face in her fur. The next few days were spent fishing off the deck with Mudcat. Uncle Harold sat nearby and whittled, giving pointers from time to time. Mudcat was the ideal fishing buddy. She sat watching and lashed her tail, sometimes darting off to chase butterflies. I landed a good-sized blue channel catfish after a struggle and Uncle Harold put it on the stringer. “What’s that cat got ahold of,” he muttered as Mudcat zigzagged across the deck. It was a leopard frog. Uncle Harold chased down and rescued the hopping frog. “Shoo, Mudcat, this here’s my prize,” he chuckled.

For the next two days Uncle Harold tormented me with that frog. He hid it in the medicine cabinet, where my toothbrush was. He hid it in the mailbox, in my tacklebox and my bedroom slippers. I got so nerved up from that frog jumping out at me and Uncle Harold cackling in the next room that I finally took the thing and threw it in the river. Uncle Harold pulled a long face; after a while I couldn’t stand it. I ran up the stage plank while he was skinning catfish and on the third tree trunk I found a peeper—a little green tree frog. Smuggling it onto the houseboat, I looked around for the best place to put it to scare Uncle Harold.

“Altha Ray’s here,” Uncle Harold sang out. I darted into the kitchen with the frog, stashing it in the first convenient spot: the sugar bowl. Retreating to my room, I hid under the quilt and listened. Altha Ray came into the kitchen and started her usual clatter with the dishes. I caught the words “fruit cobbler recipe” and “cup of sugar” and next thing I knew, Altha Ray was screaming like a banshee. She left without making the cobbler after lecturing Uncle Harold on the sin of wasting good sugar. He poked his head around the doorway. “Guess I’ll take this peeper out and put him to bed,” he grinned. I snuggled with Mudcat until the frogs sang me to sleep.

Dad showed up the next day and we had a heck of a fish fry, with hush puppies and chow-chow. When Uncle Harold asked how the repairs were going, Dad gave a heavy sigh. His work was now being overseen by the constant presence of Aunt Eula. “She showed up the other day and said she’s staying to make sure I fix everything right,” Dad groaned. “And ever since then I can’t drive a straight nail.” At that, Uncle Harold uncorked his flask and shooed me off to bed. I eavesdropped from there on in:

“Eula ain’t been right since she ran off with that fancy-pants man,” I heard Uncle Harold say. “I understand she took him for a bundle.”
“Right before the Crash of ‘29,” Dad replied. “What was he up to, some kind of new duds or something?”
“He invented clothes without pockets for those as don’t need ‘em…britches for folks that got butlers to tell ‘em what time it is, or to fetch their snuffboxes.” Their snorts of laughter lasted into the night.

School was nearly done for the year, so it was decided the way to ease back in was to attend the May Day fair. Dad and Uncle Harold accompanied me as a united front, and the annual school picnic was more fun than I expected. There was a Maypole, a croquet tournament and a big spread, and all of St. Joan was there. I was eating fried frog legs when a tall skinny kid sat down beside me. “You’re the one took the rap for the flying squirrel,” he declared, putting out a hand to shake. His name was JC White, and he was sitting in the back row in class that day I got whupped. He told me not to worry when I came back to the schoolhouse—that nobody was going to trouble me anymore. As he stood to walk off, I thanked him and invited him to come out to the houseboat any time. To my surprise, the Pentecostal teacher-lady came right over and visited with Dad, telling him what a good student I was. The prospect of a decent end to sixth grade loomed. I wished Momma could see us now.

The following day Dad went back to the property. I was teaching Mudcat to fetch, or trying to, when Uncle Harold came out and scanned the sky. The air got real still and he said it was time to come inside; a storm was brewing. We played a game of checkers and thunder began to rumble. A blast of hail hit and drummed on the houseboat. I had fun collecting hailstones and piling them in the sink until the storm slacked off and we went to bed.

It wasn’t until Dad’s next visit we learned about the effects of that storm on the house in Vine. He told us how Aunt Eula went for an after dinner stroll to check the property, and while she was off by the potato patch the wind blew up and all hell broke loose. Dad climbed down from the roof where he was hammering shingles and yelled for Eula from the porch, but before he could go look for her there came a frog rain.

“It was the damnedest thing I ever saw, Harold,” Dad said. “The air was green and thick with frogs—they were slamming into me like rocks. Eula came screeching up the hill and jumped in her roadster, never even came in the house to get her suitcase—she took off down the road like she was hauling white lightning.”

That was the last time we had to worry about Aunt Eula—she retired to Skunk Holler and kept her distance from then on. We never heard her rat-a-tat-tat again. Every once in a while we’d get a letter from her, but since they were all written in cursive, Dad didn’t pay much attention.

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Chapter 5: Summer of the Wolf

For the first time in a long while, I looked forward to going to school. Leaving the houseboat early, I walked through the May sunrise with firm resolve: there was a friend waiting on me.

The Dupflautz kids knew all about JC White. “He’s the kid on Big Creek that got the wolf,” they chimed. “It’s got red eyes!” hollered the youngest. They described JC in voices tinged with awe. When we came in sight of the schoolyard, there he stood: tall and lanky, with a cowlick of black hair that poked up on one side. “Want to go squirrel hunting after school?” was all he said. I spent the rest of the day watching the hands on the wall clock circling slowly around.

“See? This is where he waited for school to let out.” JC pointed at the remains of a rabbit. We stepped further in to the ring of forest bordering the schoolyard. “Wolf!” he called softly. Directly in front of us, a clump of bushes parted and a black timber wolf emerged, staring silently with eyes like glowing coals. “My dad was doing some logging and found him in a tree stump,” said JC. “He was just a little ball of fur when I got him.”

That afternoon summer really began. The last days of school flew by as JC and I took to combing the woods between Big Creek and Tarleton Creek, hunting fox squirrels till the sun got low. I tagged along with him while he checked his traps. Every day he brought home something for the table: a plump red-tailed squirrel or rabbit. Wolf didn’t sound or bark, but he sure could growl. Uncle Harold was glad I had a buddy. “Sheriff Joe’s son is the best shot in Arkansas County,” he observed. “Before JC—stands for Joseph Cressie—was born, his dad rode a one-eyed horse all over Forks-LaGrue Bayou. Ol’ Good-Eye; now there was a horse.”

JC had a plan for when school let out: we were going to find the Honey Man. Some folks claimed he lived in a hollow tree. Others called him the bogey man, saying he was big and wild-eyed and lurked in the bottomlands. No kid had ever seen him by day; he traveled by moonlight, hauling his kegs of golden honey to the Mercantile. His wildflower honey was the main ingredient (besides whiskey) for every cough remedy in Arkansas County.

JC had a powerful sweet tooth; one time he trapped a black mink and Mr. Bullard paid him $20 for it; first thing he did was buy two whole dollars’ worth of candy. “I got to know what the Honey Man’s comb tastes like,” JC said for the umpteenth time. On the last day of school, he kept his word about sticking up for me. A dry-lander boy tripped me as school let out and I went sprawling in the dirt. “Look at the deaf-mute river rat!” the boy sniggered. Getting to my feet, I stood there at my usual loss for words. JC ambled over and grabbed the kid by the back of his overalls. Swinging him up to eye level, he shook the kid like a rag doll. “He ain’t a deaf-mute,” he growled. “He’s a mind reader. You best run hide in the outhouse!” The boy scrambled away howling.

We hit the trail, Wolf gliding behind, and JC cut a pair of sticks to tap the ground for snakes. Coming to a shady spot, he bent some branches and pointed: quicksand. Skirting the mucky place, we moved deeper into the dim swamp where the cypress knees rise shoulder-high. After about an hour we came to a grove and sat down to share some deer jerky. Leaning against a hickory trunk, I piled up leaves til I was buried to my armpits. Patches of blue sky glowed through the branches.

“Hush,” JC said, shaking me from a doze. “You were snoring.” A doe and her fawn bounded past our hidden glade, racing down the trail. They zigzagged into the woods and disappeared. I saw Wolf’s fur bristle in waves down his spine; there came a sound of something tromping through the brush. A figure passed carrying a tow sack slung over broad shoulders. A sweat-stained hat hid his face, but his jacket of golden-colored deer leather seemed familiar: the Honey Man!

JC motioned and I followed. “Smell that?” he whispered. It was wood smoke. Ahead was a clearing, in the center a cypress shack. From the distance came a mule’s laughing bray. Scooting forward on our bellies, we hunkered behind a shed. A screen door slammed and the Honey Man walked over to a row of wooden boxes by the tree line. His face was brown as a walnut and shiny with sweat—he was grinning! Pulling a drawer from one of the boxes, he strode to the center of the clearing and set the drawer on top of a tree stump. He went back inside the little gray house and shut the door.

“Look at the size of that honeycomb,” JC sighed, eyeing the drawer’s glistening contents. Before I could blink, he was gone. Dashing across the yard, he grabbed a fistful of honeycomb and we tore through the woods as if the Devil were chasing us. After putting some distance between us and the shack, we stopped to gorge on the sweet gooey honeycomb, like candy from heaven. I was licking my fingers when JC said, “You hear something?” We stood stock-still, straining our ears. A thin whine sounded in the distance and Wolf growled. “Run!” JC yelled. We took off with the swarm of bees close behind. They chased us all the way to Big Creek, dive-bombing like crazy. “That’s the last time I take charity from the Honey Man,” said JC.

Back on the houseboat, Uncle Harold placed strips of wet brown paper on my bee stings and explained how the Honey Man crossed over from Mississippi a few years back. “His name is Sam. Some Mississippi lawmen claim he killed a couple of Cajuns, but it ain’t like Sam done anything this side of the River,” Uncle Harold shrugged. “Those Cajuns prob’ly needed killing.”

Summer played on and the White River replaced the woods as fishing and swimming filled our days. After finishing whatever chores I couldn’t avoid, I met JC at Bullard’s Mercantile to make plans and we’d go from there. He had the rest of the $20 he got for the mink pelt, so Saturday afternoon we came to town on a mission to buy a new snap gig. What with a full moon and perfect weather, the plan was to go frog gigging with Uncle Harold later on. We were in our usual spot in front of the candy counter when the door jingled. A sudden string of oaths burst forth—we spun around to see Mr. Bullard cocking his shotgun over the counter—it was pointed at a scrawny-looking fellow in the doorway. “You ain’t buying anything in here, mister, not with your blood money,” Mr. Bullard said. The man slowly raised his hands and backed away without uttering a sound. JC glared at the stranger, and when the door closed he leaned down and whispered in my ear, “Go straight home and don’t tell.” Grabbing a handful of nails, he tossed a nickel on the counter and left without buying the snap gig.

Uncle Harold and I were sitting on deck watching the moonrise when Dad drove up. In the morning he was taking me and Mudcat back to Vine for the rest of the summer—Dad was set on making a farmer out of me. He came barreling down the stage plank whooping and hollering, and after catching his breath and having a nip, he gave us the story: Driving through Saint Joan he spotted half the town milling around the Mercantile. Folks were in an uproar over Frank Martin, the prison trusty who got parole for killing Helen Spence. The murderer had brazenly come into Saint Joan only to get run off by Mr. Bullard. “Frank Martin took the rap for killing her, all right,” said Uncle Harold. “Damned drylander.”

“But that ain’t all,” Dad went on, “They said Martin left town in a hurry and was crossing the bridge at Forks-Lagrue when his tire caught a nail and went flat. He got out the car to check the tire and a pack of dogs set on him. Those dogs tore his butt to shreds before he could get back in the car. He drove off on the rim in a shower of sparks—it’s the talk of the town.”

“Well I’ll be,” exclaimed Uncle Harold. “Hopefully it was some mad dogs bit him.” We waited awhile and when JC didn’t show, the three of us slipped off in the shell boat. Sitting in front holding the lantern, I watched the moon peek from a cloud as an eerie howl echoed against the bluff. Dad speared fat bullfrogs one by one and slung them in the boat—he didn’t need a fancy snap gig. Uncle Harold lounged in back, manning the paddle between nips and chuckling through the darkness, “Mad dogs, yep, mad dogs. You ain’t just a-wolfin’… you ain’t just a wolfin’.”

Years later, we heard Frank Martin went around bragging he was the one shot the notorious Helen Spence. He walked into Cloud’s grocery near Casscoe to buy a loaf of bread and the lady behind the counter was from the River. She sold him a different loaf, said it cost less and was just as good. Frank Martin went home, ate dinner and never woke up the next morning. Folks always said the River got him.

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Chapter 6: Run for the Roses

Back at the “dirt farm in Vine” as Dad called it, work was plentiful. After bending a dozen nails and breaking a hoe, I was put in charge of the chickens and pond. “Just bring in some eggs and a few catfish or bream now and then,” Dad pleaded.

His plan centered on a crop of fast-growing sorghum. We were going to turn it into molasses at the end of the season. Dad was already tallying jars to sell to the general store at nearby Bethel and Bullard’s Mercantile in Saint Joan. He had acquired a mule so we planted a big garden too. I got used to eating greens, baby taters and double-yolker omelets. Most days I found time to sneak off and see what JC was up to. The Brown farm, a much larger piece of land than ours, was located between Vine and Bethel. One midsummer afternoon I met JC coming down the dusty road. Recognizing me from a distance, he plunked down in the shade and waited. “There’s a horse race today at the big cypress,” he hollered when I was still a ways off, a revelation that set me running.

I never saw a real horse race. Whenever Aunt Eula would go on about the glory days of Oaklawn Park over in Hot Springs, Momma called it scandalous. As we walked, JC described the scene: after taking off from the big cypress, the horsemen would gallop over a mile to the general store in Bethel where the winner got a cold Coca-Cola and folks collected their bets. Part of the track went through the woods. “My uncle was on the crew that built this road,” said JC. “When they got to the cypress tree, there wasn’t a saw blade big enough to cut it, so they built the road to Bethel around it.”

We veered off to the bottoms as shouts of laughter and the jingle of harnesses sounded ahead. Soon we entered a cypress grove containing more drylanders and horseflesh than I had ever seen gathered in one place. At the center of the hubbub, the giant tree rose up like a mountain, with knees 10 feet tall. I stared up at the faraway treetop, where an eagle’s nest wedged between branches. “During rainy seasons it takes a canoe to get here,” JC observed. “A dry spell like this is good racing weather.”

Six tall farm boys swung into saddles. I like Palominos; there was a fine one prancing about, also some chestnut quarter horses and a paint pony. Men young and old ranged around swapping bets. JC stood in conversation with an older boy named Jim whose family kept a houseboat downriver from Uncle Harold. I knew Jim by reputation as one of the best mussel shellers in Saint Joan; despite being small of stature he could shoulder a helmet and stay under water longer than anybody. Suddenly the crowd grew quiet and a man hollered something, lifting his pistol skyward. A shot rang out and the horses broke away in a cloud of dust and yelling.

Some folks ran to the road and jumped in automobiles; a few followed on horseback or mule. By the time we made it to Bethel on foot, the race was over and one of the Hankins brothers had won on the paint pony. All the girls from school were there, milling around and gushing over the horses and the Hankins brothers. Some of the girls had made a garland of roses for the winner. Jim and JC rolled their eyes at the spectacle. “Let’s go fishing,” Jim said, tearing up his slip. “I’d rather bet on something I can eat than a horse race anyhow.”

The following week there was a revival down on the White River. Despite his aversion to indoor churchgoing, Uncle Harold never missed a chance to take Altha Ray to the brush arbor. I tried to get Dad to come, but he just shook his head. “God don’t want me and Hell’s already full,” he declared. He insisted I wash behind my ears and put on a clean shirt, muttering, “Your momma always wanted to see you baptized.” I had no such plans. I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Every summer on the White River, folks cut lengths of cane and willow branches to fashion a rectangular open-air structure. Then they made a brush arbor, roofing the frame with branches while girls braided lengths of flower-vines and wrapped them around the posts. Honeysuckle, virgin’s bower and maypops dangled, heady with perfume, all within a stone’s throw of the River. Rows of benches were set up and lanterns hung. Preacher Barton surveyed the scene with satisfaction. He’d come down from Skunk Holler by way of Possum Waller to baptize the faithful and eat catfish and barbecue.

I rode with JC’s family to Saint Joan (Wolf stayed behind, consigned to the barn). The buckboard wagon joined a line of others as we neared the River. “I hear the Hankins boys are up to something,” JC said. “We’d better keep an eye out.” His dad pulled the buckboard into the shade and we ran to find Jim, who had already heard the rumor about the Hankins boys. Plenty of families were arriving as the sun rose higher. At every turn, groups of giddy mothers showed off their new babies, exclaiming over each other.

“Let’s get away from this hen party,” muttered Jim. We took a bench in the back of the brush arbor but saw no sign of the Hankins brothers. “Looks like they’re planning a surprise attack,” JC said as Jim nodded gravely. I had only a vague notion of the Hankins brothers; like Jim, they were already past 9th grade and out of school. Besides the winner of the horse race, there were several more just like him, big and boisterous and always into something. “The Hankinses are the best pranksters in Arkansas County,” JC remarked in admiration. Uncle Harold and Altha Ray came over to greet us and the seats began filling up as Preacher Barton stepped to the fore.

There were some farm-related prayers for the crops to increase and good weather to continue; beyond that I got lost in daydreams, drowsy from the heat. After a break for a few baptisms and a picnic lunch, the sermonizing started up again for the duration of the afternoon, punctuated occasionally by hymns. I fidgeted on the hard bench. The babies started fussing too; each time, the mother would get up and take the baby over to where the buckboards were parked in the shade. After tending to the baby, the mother wrapped it and tucked it in the wagon to sleep til the sermon was over. As Preacher Barton droned on, I wished I were asleep on a quilt pallet in a buckboard, too.

Preacher Barton finally ran out of steam around sunset. The contented crowd was headed home when a scream pierced the air. “This ain’t little Howard!” a woman shrieked from a nearby wagon. The line of buckboards slowed as a babble of voices arose: “Whose baby have we got?” “Why, this isn’t Opal—it’s Clara’s niece!” Women poured into the road, rushing hysterically from wagon to wagon. “Lord,” JC cried, awestruck. “I hope there ain’t a catfight.” Folks exchanged squalling babies, calling above the din, “It’s the Hankins boys!”

The revival went on for days, but I stayed home from then on to work with Dad and avoid any chance at getting baptized. JC showed up one day when we were sitting down to dinner, and as Dad piled food on his plate he offered up the latest news of the Hankins boys.

“After a couple days of folks getting their babies switched around, those drylanders took to checking their babies before they left for home,” JC grinned. He described how the Hankins brothers themselves finally showed up and sat in the back row. No one knew what to expect. At the height of Preacher Barton’s oration, the brothers began scraping their big old work boots on the ground, crunching the brush arbor’s floor of crushed mussel shells. Preacher Barton merely increased his volume. This ordeal went on for the entire book of Job.

“The next day was the last day of the revival,” JC continued. “Preacher Barton shows up to the pulpit, takes his Bible and sets it down. He pulls out his big pocket watch and puts that down beside. And then he brings out his Schofield pistol, lays it on top of the Bible and says, ‘I come here to preach the word of the Lord. But anybody in back want to make noise, I’ll be happy to send him to Hell!’”

Things quieted down considerably after the revival, and Dad spent the rest of the summer trying to make a farmer out of me. “I don’t know as you’re much of a farmer,” he would sigh. “But at least you’re not a prankster, nor a preacher.”

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Chapter 7: Sweet as Molasses

Autumn on the River is busy season. There’s the Reunion at the end of October, but before that comes the sorghum harvest and molasses-making. I was itching to see my first molasses-cooking party—JC said it lasts for days, with music and circle dances and a big spread. School lets out early, perking folks up.

Dad liked to broke his back cutting the 10-foot stalks, topped with tassels that have to be sawn off by hand. From sunup to sundown we piled green cane into the hay wagon, falling asleep as soon as supper was over. My hands blistered and I got behind on the dishwashing—when we ran out of clean pots and pans Dad kept going. He switched to the Dutch oven and built a fire out in the yard. One evening we were tucking in to a mess of stew when JC and Wolf showed up. After dinner, we lounged on the porch. The moon shone through the pines as JC cleared his throat. “Mr. Granberry, can Brent ride with us to the molasses-makin’? We got room in our buckboard and he can camp with Jim and me.” I waited, holding my breath. Dad grinned. “That’ll work. I’ll be in Uncle Harold’s tent. Just follow the snoring.”

The next few days were a blur. Ducks and geese began flying back to the River, their numbers darkening the sky. Between the nip in the air and the colors in the leaves, I went around dazzled. JC talked molasses nonstop; he was sharpening his sweet tooth. “The best barbecue sauce has sorghum in it. The pit’s already dug at the Williams’ place—they’re probably scalding the hog now. Cracklings are my favorite,” he rambled as we walked home from school. Jim was already gone ahead up the River. “He’s pitching camp by the River, away from the big house,” JC said, “since Wolf is coming to guard the camp.”

“Guard it from what?” I asked. JC didn’t answer until we came to the fork in the road. As he and Wolf turned off for home, he hollered, “Ghosts, that’s what! Guard it from ghosts!” I stared until they were out of sight and a dust devil sprang up in the empty dirt. My scalp prickled and I ran the rest of the way home.

That night I lay awake, listening for Dad’s snore—the house was too quiet. “Dad? Is the Williams place haunted? JC says it’s haunted.” The Williams homestead, for years the site of the molasses-making, had fields and orchards and a big stone wishing well. Two maiden aunts and their elderly brother lived in the farmhouse in peace and quiet, except for the yearly wingding. JC called it “sorghum philanthropy.”

“He’s just rattlin’ your cage, son—go to sleep.” It’s true that JC held to uncertain lore, as when he swore if a Model A were parked with the engine running, the tires would melt. He’d cross his heart while describing in detail a hoop snake, gulley cat or snipe. He even got me to believe knotholes on trees were doors to beehives—for months I knocked on every knothole I saw. Maybe ghosts are uncertain lore.

When school let out we ran yelling down the steps. At JC’s house we climbed into the loaded buckboard, like a big shoebox on wheels, with Mr. and Mrs. White up front guiding the draft horses. JC’s older brother Henry followed on horseback and Wolf stalked beside. Being in high spirits, we took turns singing—that is, the White family sang “This Old White Mule of Mine,” followed by a round:

“I’m going to leave ol’ Texas now, they’ve got no use for the longhorn cow
They’ve plowed and fenced my cattle range, and the people there are all so strange…”

More wagons entered the road, winding past hedgerows of purple sumac and goldenrod. Mrs. White began “Auld Lang Syne,” and a lump came into my throat—Momma used to sing that. On reflex, I looked to the heavens that were bluer than a bird egg and it was like a vision dropped from the sky, as if Momma whispered in my ear: Remember, Poppy River makes molasses candy, the best molasses candy in Arkansas County. The River Sisters—surely they’d be there! I resolved to scour the Williams place for any sign of them.

The wagon topped a rise and the air hummed with sudden laughter and conversation, jangling harnesses, rumbling engines. Distant smoke spiraled from the vat of boiling molasses as folks gathered in oak and pecan groves, unfolding card tables and setting out potluck dishes. A group of men was putting up a stage next to the muscadine arbor and kids played crack-the-whip, white legs and brown legs snaking in a blur barefoot until the whip snapped, sending the small ones rolling in the grass. JC pointed to where a mule trod a circle, hitched to a long pole turning the grindstone. “First we try the raw cane juice,” he said. “But just a sip—you don’t want to spend the weekend in the outhouse.”

Escaping the wagon, we passed some folks working an apple press and a girl held out a cup. “Want some live-apple juice? Say—is that a timber wolf?” With a nod to the girl, JC grabbed my arm and steered toward the settling vat. “First things first,” he repeated. He was right—a little of that foamy, sappy juice was plenty—it tasted sharp as the color green. We took off toward the river.

Jim’s shell boat was tied to the bank and the camp looked a sight. A raggedy flag (red silk bloomers) flapped atop the tent pole and from trees hung all manner of gear: spyglass, drinking gourd, railroad lantern. A circle of stones marked the fire pit, next to which Jim lay with his hat over his eyes. JC whispered to Wolf, who broke into a piercing howl. Scrambling to his feet, Jim cussed us for being late. I stared off while the two of them argued about what to do first—play horseshoes or go find the musicians. “You’re mighty quiet,” said JC. “What’s eating you?”

I announced my mission: to find three sisters, name of River. Apparently, the girls were as legendary in Saint Joan as in Skunk Holler—JC and Jim gawked as though I’d sprouted a second head. “The River Sisters ain’t been seen in a good while,” JC began, but Jim shouted him down, betting us a nickel they were close by right this minute. After more arguing, we agreed to fan out on a search and meet up in an hour. “Wolf, stand guard,” JC called.

I plunged into the crowd and caught up to a buffet line, asking every few paces if anybody had seen the River Sisters. People seemed startled, but in the next breath they’d be talking a streak—everybody had a story about the River Sisters. Begging pardon, I excused myself and ran to the nearest card table, asking some poker players if they’d seen the River Sisters. That was the end of their hand, as each fellow folded his cards and talked over the other, vying to praise the girls. I gave up on the poker players and hurried to find the musicians.

The boys stood behind a shed, tuning their guitars and passing a jug. “Have y’all seen the River Sisters?” I panted. “Speak up, kid—don’t be a mush-mouth,” said the washboard player. When I repeated the question, they welcomed me warmly. “Sit down—have a nip of this blueberry wine.” Dad gave me some blueberry wine once when I had the croup, so I took a swig. The warming potion spread like electricity down my middle as the musicians debated over which songs to play for the River Sisters, ignoring my presence. This wasn’t working as planned, so I went in search of JC.

I found him at the Flying Jenny, a sort of giant seesaw for brave people. “They’re here all right,” JC said excitedly as Jim pushed through the multitude, hollering, “They’re here!” We spotted a table by the barbecue pit and compared notes over messy helpings of barbecue. It was like I thought: nobody had seen the River Sisters, but everybody was sure they were here. “Wonder who started that rumor?” JC hooted. Bonfires flared in the distance as the musicians took the stage, dedicating the song to “the sweetest gals in Arkansas, the River Sisters.” The Cajun reel went round and round: “When we didn’t have no crawfish, we didn’t eat no crawfish,” as couples danced under a full moon.

The rest of the weekend flew by. I won a penny jacknife pitching horseshoes, and Dad and Uncle Harold jarred up 30 crates of fine amber syrup—enough to pay bills. Back home, I slept like a log. But Dad woke me before dawn. “I want to fetch a premium price for our first batch—what do you think?” he said, raising the lantern. Mason jars of sorghum molasses covered the kitchen floor, table and counter. They all bore brown paper labels: “Granberry’s Hainted Molasses.”

Dad had stayed up all night making the labels and I didn’t have the heart to tell him he misspelled “haunted.” Turns out, it didn’t even matter—folks bought it in droves, said it was the best they’d had, and we were in tall cotton for a good while.

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Chapter 8: Snow on the Cedar

The Reunion marks the beginning of the Holidays, with Thanksgiving and Christmas and the New Year just around the corner. Camp Doughboy near DeWitt draws families from across Arkansas County, but Dad could remember the old Reunion ground, Camp Fagan, on the lower White River. Camp Fagan was named after a Confederate general; you can still dig up a musket ball on the riverbank there—even cannon balls. That part of the River was known as Indian Bay until a Civil War battle filled the water with dying soldiers and horses. Afterward folks renamed it Stinking Bay.

I rode with JC’s family again and before we saw Camp Doughboy through the trees we could hear the music. Anybody carrying an instrument gets in the Reunion for free. There’s a merry-go-round with wooden horses and a calliope and even a magic lantern show. At dusk, folks file inside the big tent to sit on benches, waiting for dark. Then they light up the lantern that projects pictures—the wonders of the world flicker across the canvas. My favorites were the Taj Mahal, Sitting Bull, the Sphinx and Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls made me seasick, it looked so real—or maybe it was just too many candy apples and rides on the merry-go-round.

“Altha Ray makes the finest fried chicken,” sighed JC, sprawled beside the fire. “I’m fuller’n a tick,” Jim groaned. We were camped by the River, away from the main campgrounds, and Wolf stood guard. “Tonight’s Halloween,” JC mused. “Did I ever tell y’all about the ghost up at the Icehouse?” The Icehouse at Saint Joan did set up on a bluff like some giant gray skull made of cypress instead of bone, but it wasn’t haunted. “I don’t want to hear your fish stories,” I challenged. “I seen a real ghost—it shook my hand!”

Jim whistled. “Still waters run deep. You don’t talk much, but when you do it’s a doozy!” We drew up in a circle by the fire and I told them all about meeting Helen Spence in the graveyard and how she saved me from the storm. “Here’s the quill my uncle made,” I said, pulling the string necklace from inside my shirt. “If I blew this whistle—right now—would it wake the dead? Do y’all think Helen would come?”

“Do it!” hollered JC. But Jim shook his head. “Brent, you know you can’t. It ain’t right to trouble an unquiet spirit. Helen’s an unquiet spirit.” I put the whistle back inside my shirt as JC fumed. “Well I wanna see ‘er! Y’all are scaredy-cats!” Jim stared into the fire. “JC, you talk like a drylander! Were you there when we broke her outta that damned funeral home in DeWitt? Where they had her dead body set up in the winder like Bonnie Parker? No. It was us River folk went and got her and brought her home. Your Uncle was with us, Brent.”

“That was the first time I saw my momma cry, was when Helen died,” JC asked. “I miss her too. You say you know where to find her grave?”

“I oughta know—I helped dig it,” Jim replied. “We planted a cedar tree to mark it. Next to where Cicero is buried, back in the potter’s field. The night we buried her, the moon was so bright it give me freckles.”

We agreed to visit Helen’s cedar tree after the Reunion was over, but there came a hard freeze. “Looks like the persimmon seeds predicted right,” Uncle Harold said, stoking the fire. “Back when your dad was a boy, there was a winter so cold it froze the River—folks went ice-skating!” Dad was toughing it out at the farm—he had closed up the house and was sleeping in the barn with the animals. In the middle of the night I woke to a strange sound, so loud it drowned out Uncle Harold’s snoring. Bundled in a wool blanket, I crept through the dark houseboat and went to open the door—it was stuck. I pried it open a crack, put my head out and felt something like needles on my face—an ice storm!

We were iced in all right. For the next few days we holed up, listening to trees exploding outside. My nerves were shot from worrying if the ice storm would fell Helen’s tree. Uncle Harold wore me down asking “Why so blue?” When I explained the reason, he nodded sympathetically. “Please—tell me about Helen Spence,” I asked, and he stoked the fire and began:

“They called her the Swamp Angel, but she’s just a little River girl. She could shoot straighter’n a man, and sew and tat lace finer than any dry-lander lady. She lived by a code; the code of River Justice. The River gets its revenge, y’know—the River’ll eat you up in the end. Helen shot the man who killed her daddy; shot him four times in such a tight pattern you could put a hat over it.”

“At the trial? In the courthouse?”

“You ain’t just a wolfin’. Folks were jumping out the courthouse winders to get away. The judge hid under his desk. She had a pearl-handled lady’s pistol tucked inside a fur muff she wore—it was cold that day, like now. After she shot that no-good, she handed over the gun to JC’s daddy. That judge never should have sent her to the Pea Farm, because she’s from the River. She kept escaping—always headed back to the River though, so they always caught her. One escape she planned for weeks. They had took her off the field crew and put her to work in the prison laundry. She saved up a bunch of cloth napkins—the red and white ones.”

“Gingham?”

“Yes, gingham-checked napkins,” Uncle Harold continued. “She saved ‘em and sewed ‘em into the lining of her prison dress. And when the mean ol’ prison matron, Miz Brockman, sent the gals up to Memphis and the bus stopped off at the station, what do you think Helen did? She went to the ladies room, turned her dress inside out, and waltzed off pretty as you please! But like I say, they always caught up to her, and give ‘er ten lashes with the blacksnake—a leather strop.” When I asked why Miz Brockman bused the prisoners to Memphis, Uncle Harold hesitated. “They done a lot of bad things then—I’ll tell you another time. Get on to bed.”

I woke burning with fever and poor Uncle Harold didn’t know what to do. As a result, he tried out all his home remedies on me: A knife under my cot “to cut the pain,” doses of turpentine “to clean me out” and hot oatmeal and onion plasters on my chest “to draw up the bad stuff.” When he came at me with yet another steaming cup of godawful stewed leaves he called “senny,” I begged for mercy. “That stuff puts me in the outhouse—it’s too dang cold out there,” I wailed. As a compromise, he brewed a pot of coffee and poured in the last of his “special reserve.” After a few cups, we both felt stronger.

I lost track of time, but one morning brought a moist breeze that started things to thawing. I felt strong enough to go outside, and from the top of the stage plank I watched chunks of blueish ice float past wet black tree trunks. The snow was so bright it hurt my eyes. I went back inside the houseboat, resolved to walk to the cemetery the next day no matter what. I would go alone, since I didn’t have the wind in me to walk to JC or Jim’s place and fetch ‘em.

I was sure I could find the right tree—when Uncle Harold described it, I recognized the place I met Helen. I went slowly, breathing hard, the drip and crack of melting ice sounding through the woods. Fallen trees blocked the road; it looked like the cedars got hit bad—split from the top down, branches sheathed in gray-green ice. At the cemetery entrance I leaned against a pillar, staring over an alien sea of white drifts and broken limbs. How would I find Helen’s tree? I looked down to see a line of rabbit tracks leading off among the headstones, so I followed them. The tracks led to the back corner of the graveyard and there stood Helen’s cedar tree, untouched by the ice storm.

I blew softly on the quill and waited. “Helen,” I whispered. “Are you there?” When nothing happened I leaned my head against the slender trunk. I was all give out. The sun came blazing from behind a cloud and through my tears the ice sparkled like diamonds, little rainbows everywhere. At the base of the tree a droplet appeared bright red against the melting snow—it was red as blood. I knelt and brushed away the snow, uncovering a patch of wild strawberries. What in the world—berries in the dead of winter!

“Brent? Son, are you there?” Dad’s voice called nearby. I answered and soon he was standing beside. “So this is her tree,” he said. He had driven to Uncle Harold’s to fetch me and found me gone. “Son, let’s go home—you ain’t well yet.” I took my quill necklace and tied it around the tree trunk, and Dad helped me to the truck.

That spring brought the best strawberry crop in years. At Eastertide, Dad and I planted dahlias at Momma’s grave. I didn’t return to Helen’s tree for a while, but JC always said that when the dogwoods bloom and a breeze comes off the River just so, the little quill whistles a pan-pipe call, and Helen’s laughter drifts like distant music through the trees.

river gathering (1024x668)

Chapter 9: Heroes and Villains

There was a flying ace, a fighter pilot who left Arkansas County to travel the world—Frank Tinker. He was a real-life hero of the Spanish War and a buddy of Dad’s. He used to buzz us out in the fields, zooming loud and low over the farm in his single engine Jenny, laughing. We heard Frank Tinker met a sad fate in a Little Rock hotel—shot and killed over a jealous woman. He was buried at DeWitt with “Quien Sabe?” (“Who Knows?”) carved on his headstone. Folks tended to shy away from scandal, so his name went unspoken.

There was also in Saint Joan during this time a villain whose name was on everyone’s lips. From the church sanctuary to the docks, tales of his villainy spread until an image formed in my mind like some graven idol of the Old Testament. He was known as “The Colonel,” said to be rich as Midas and cruel as Herod. JC snickered when I asked which war he fought in. “The Colonel? He got his medals off a Memphis pawnbroker.” JC explained how the old man lived alone ever since his invalid wife up and died of sheer spite; he kept a house in town and a plantation toward Skunk Holler. Over the years so many housekeepers quit on him that he took to writing checks to the Pea Farm, paying large sums to parole poor gals out of prison—and straight into bondage.

“The Colonel rides his tenants hard,” JC said. “Works ‘em ragged. Awhile back, he drilled a well to irrigate his land. Now he charges the small farmers cash on the barrelhead for water.”

I stalked the springtime streets of Saint Joan with a sharp eye out for the Colonel, the only dark blot on April. Roaming the soft green woods, my brain set to reeling from misty breezes. At school I daydreamed and at home I turned bitter and sulled up, snapping at Dad. On top of all this, Mudcat was fixing to have her first litter of kittens. What if she were too small? I seethed with indignation.

“You’ve got spring fever,” Dad concluded. He pronounced the cure: a spell of fishing with Uncle Harold. He said I could come home after Mudcat had her kittens—“Harold’s the dang zookeeper, so let him deal. Cool your heels on the River—it’ll do you good.” But I didn’t want anything to do me good. The heathen in me reared up. First chance I got I snuck away from Uncle Harold’s, scaled the fence back of the Colonel’s townhouse and shook the ripening plums off his trees. Emboldened, I returned the following night with a rock and broke his basement window. JC confronted me after school: “Are you gonna tell me what’s going on, or do I have to throw you?” I bowed up on him, but as he was still a head taller than me, I thought better and dropped my fists.

“You’re the one broke out the Colonel’s winder, ain’t ya?” said JC. “I best keep you in my sight, Cole Younger!”

We came upon Jim standing by the log chute at River Bend. The Mary Woods churned our way, red paddlewheel shining in the distance. She was coming to pick up a tow—a bunch of floating logs all chained together. It was fun to watch the giant tree trunks plunge down the chute into the River, sending spray sky-high. Cypress logs were already piled at the head of the chute and a team of draft horses appeared, shiny with sweat, pulling a load of hickory. Mr. Williams walked alongside.
“Hey Mr. Williams,” called JC. “How’s the molasses business?”

“Like they say—sweet,” he replied. I realized Mr. Williams was a woodsman by trade and as he talked timber with JC and Jim, up strode the company man. “Get that hickory down the chute, boy—now!” barked the foreman. At the sound of a Yankee accent, the four of us turned to study the foreman’s pink face, not saying a word. “We got to chain the hickory to the–,” began Mr. Williams, but the foreman interrupted with an ugly oath. Mr. Williams shrugged and walked back to the wagon team.

“You see that?” Jim asked JC, who nodded. “What happened?” I said. “Watch,” muttered JC. The men used iron pikes to move the ragged hickory trunks, straining and grunting. As the logs thundered down the chute, splashing into deep water, I waited for them to shoot back up like big corks. But nothing happened—the logs just sank. Jim and JC hooted with laughter as the Yankee threw his hat to the ground, cussing.

“I done told you before—we got to hook ‘em to cypress to float ‘em,” Mr. Williams sang out as JC and Jim doubled over laughing until tears ran down their cheeks. Hickory, being a dense and heavy grain, doesn’t float easily. The day’s work was lost. The foreman caught my eye and snarled, “Damn river rats,” so I snatched up a hickory nut and beaned him on the temple. “Run!” yelled Jim and the three of us hotfooted it all the way to Uncle Harold’s houseboat. “You looked like David and Goliath back yonder,” gasped JC.

Somehow my Uncle knew all about the broken window. “Brent’s feeling his oats, all right,” he sighed. “Have y’all taken him to see Mother Carey? She fixed up my plantar’s wart—had me bind a slice o’tater to it. Worked like a charm.” At this, my companions grabbed ahold of my arms and ordered me to march. We left Uncle Harold grinning by the stage plank and headed past the cold spring, following the River. After much pleading on my part they finally let go. “Who the heck is Mother Carey?” I demanded.

“She’s an old gypsy lady,” JC began as Jim interrupted. “No she ain’t, she’s a voodoo witch!” This argument went on for a good half mile. “You got some tobacco?” JC asked, and Jim nodded. “Course I got some! I know the score.” “What is going ON?” I hollered, to no avail.

The path ended in a clearing with a flight of stone steps leading to the water, where a houseboat floated atop cypress logs. It had a pitched roof like a lean-to, and in the doorway stood a little old woman, brown as a bean—a very wrinkly bean. The minute her glittering dark eyes fell on me I got a rigor, a shiver that rippled from head to toe. The old lady lifted her pipe. “What’s a matter there?” she cackled. “A rabbit run over your grave?” Jim solemnly handed his tobacco pouch to Mother Carey and we went inside. She rocked slowly in a wicker chair as we sat cross-legged on the floor and my case was presented: “He’s moonstruck bad—he’s off his feed.” In the dim light I could see the walls were papered in newsprint. Bundles of sweet-smelling herbs dangled from the rafters. When she turned and asked, “What’s your question?” I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.

“Why’s the Colonel alive and my Momma’s dead?” For answer, Mother Carey lit her pipe. The smoke drifted toward the three of us, and things shifted somehow. It was like we sort of sank into the floor—I can’t explain.

“Don’t you worry ‘bout the Colonel,” her raspy voice echoed overhead. “Y’all be dancing on his grave before the next full moon. And don’t worry about your momma either—you gots her eyes.” The voice fell silent. As soon as we could lift our heads, we crawled out the door on hands and knees. The sunshine revived us and we stumbled back to Harold’s place lost in wonderment.

A week went by and nothing happened except that Mudcat had three kittens. I cheered up some; Bo was happiest of all, as though he was their dad. The Dupflautz kids wanted the two calico ones, but I secretly hoped we could keep the third kitten, a gray tabby. I was walking to JC’s house, musing about the kittens, when I noticed someone galloping up the road—the Colonel! Before I could look around for a good rock to chunk, he passed by in a cloud of dust, flogging his bay mare like a madman. It made me so angry I ran home to the houseboat, not wanting to see anybody, not even JC.

“It’s good you got here when you did,” Uncle Harold said. The weather had turned. We herded the animals inside minutes before a cloudburst ushered in days of rain. The houseboat rose in the water like an ark as the two of us holed up, playing cards and petting cats. After the rain stopped, we didn’t see Dad for a couple more days and I fretted—but as soon as the floods receded, he came bringing news: the Colonel was dead.

“Word is he was checking fences at the plantation when the rain spooked his horse,” said Dad. “The horse took off into the swamp. Rolled over on him—they say he drowned and got crushed, too.” Uncle Harold observed that “if anybody deserved to die twice’t it were the Colonel.”

I was glad to get back to the farm, but first I had something to do. I set out for the Saint Joan cemetery, resolved to dance on the Colonel’s grave. To my surprise, there was a family gathered around the big white marble monument (the Colonel had special ordered it from Little Rock years before). One of the people turned—it was Mattie Lively, my old schoolmate from Skunk Holler. I barely recognized her, she was grown so tall. She smiled and said, “Why, Brent Granberry!”

Turns out, the Colonel’s name was Harvey Walburton Lively—Mattie’s grandfather. He’d quarreled with his only son, banishing him years ago. But since nobody could find a will, the inheritance fell to Mattie’s dad. The farm was to be leased out and Mattie was coming to live in the townhouse. I offered to fix a certain window, and as we talked the old bitterness inside melted clean away. “I missed you, Mattie,” I said, and it was the truth. “Hey—want a kitten?”

Things shifted after that, in a good way. Cured of spring fever, I looked forward to the sun coming up. JC and I laughed at how folks in Arkansas County said the Colonel’s grave was the most fertile plot in the Saint Joan Cemetery. Tall white iris grew thick as weeds against his marble marker, adorned year-round with yellow stains.

houseboat

The Brothers Simpson

The Brothers Simpson

FADE IN:

1 EXT. SIMPSON ENTERPRISES LLC – DAY

A retired couple, the MCCRACKENS, inspect a luxury RV. Their Cobra sports car is parked nearby. BRUCE SIMPSON closes the deal.

MR. MCCRACKEN
Look here, son. My wife’s dragging me off on this trip. If you do as we agreed, then all’s good. If you don’t, there’s gonna be trouble. Here are the keys.

BRUCE
Mr. McCracken, your baby’s safer with me than a bug in a rug snug as a bee in your bonnet or a bur under your saddle blanket. I’ll drive her once a week for conditioning and keep her covered the rest. Y’all have a safe trip—enjoy the RV. See you in three weeks.

RV drives off as FELDMAN, BRUCE’S #1 minion, rushes over.

FELDMAN
Chief, this just came in, it looks important.

BRUCE
Hand it over, dummy. Looks like Uncle Abraham has dropped dead!

FELDMAN
No! I figured that ornery old skinflint to live forever. He sure could fish, though!

BRUCE
You know he’s rich? Won every fishing tournament since ‘62.

FELDMAN
Yep, and so mean and stingy he’d squeeze a nickel til the buffalo poots!

BRUCE peels out in the Cobra.

2 INT. ACCOUNTING OFFICE – DAY.

TRACEY SIMPSON stares at his computer screen, a display of a website about “How to Open Your Own Sports Bar.”

[VOICEOVER]
Simpson! You got that spreadsheet finished for the Boatatorium
Account?
TRACEY
Yes, Mr. Scourge. I gave it to you last week. [bangs head on desk]

TRACEY sees letter on his desk, reads it and jumps up to leave.

3 EXT. ACCOUNTING OFFICE — DAY

TRACEY exits the office. BRUCE is parked at the curb.

BRUCE
Hey little brother.

TRACEY
Where’d you steal the car?

BRUCE
Show some respect. This is a day of mourning!

TRACEY
Respect? He never had a thing to do with us. We weren’t rugged enough. And we stunk at fishing.

BRUCE
Little brother we’re about to be rich.

Cobra peels off.

4 EXT. CONVENIENCE STORE — DAY

BRUCE walks to the door, talking on his cellphone.

BRUCE
Yeah I got that car you said you needed. I’ll see you in the morning. Early!

5 INT. CONVENIENCE STORE – DAY

BRUCE places an 18-pack of beer, pork rinds and a pack of cigarettes on the counter.

CASHIER
It’s not taking your card.

BRUCE
That’s impossible. There’s over $6,000 dollars in that account.

CASHIER
Let’s try credit… Nope.

BRUCE pulls out a wad of cash and starts counting as a line forms behind him.

BRUCE
One, two, three… How old are you, son?

CASHIER
Just turned 22.

BRUCE
23, 24—Here you go, son. And here’s my card – Simpson Enterprises, we do it all. Let’s talk sometime.

CASHIER
Thanks, sir!

6 INT. COBRA – DAY

BRUCE
How old are you, Tracey?

TRACEY
Give me my change.

BRUCE
Just testing. You always were the smart one. Let’s go get our money!

TRACEY
Stop counting your chickens Bruce!

BRUCE
We’re his only heirs. It’s in the bag. Trust me!

TRACEY
I told you never say that to me.

Cobra peels off.

7 INT. LAW OFFICES OF LACOSTA, ARMAN & LEGGETT – DAY

The brothers open a door emblazoned with “LACOSTA, ARMAN & LEGGETT, ATTORNEYS AT LAW,” and enter a musty outdated office with stuffed trophy animals on the walls. They exchange awkward greetings.

TRACEY
Mr. Arman, Mr. Leggett.

BRUCE
Mr. Leggett, Mr. Arman.

MR. ARMAN
If you’ll please be seated….. As your late uncle’s only direct heirs, you both stand to inherit everything. $2.7 million in cash and assets. A Louisiana fishing cabin which may or may not be underwater. A 1/8 stake in Dogpatch. A llama farm. And his famous collection of spoons. However, your uncle provided a codicil.

BRUCE
That’s all good but what’s a codicil? Some kinda fish, heh heh?

TRACEY
It means stipulations, Bruce.

MR. ARMAN
Your uncle provided a video that explains everything.

BRUCE
How’d he die?

MR. LEGGETT
He fell afoul of a poorly fileted trout.

TRACEY
You mean he choked on a fish bone?

BRUCE
And he wondered why we hated fishing.

A TV comes on, revealing UNCLE ABRAHAM, a Colonel Sanders-type figure, glaring from the screen.

UNCLE ABRAHAM
If you’re watching this right now, it means I’ve hooked my last trophy. Bruce, PLEASE wipe the beer and pork rinds off your chin.

BRUCE spews his beer and looks at TRACEY.

UNCLE ABRAHAM
First of all, I ain’t having a funeral, so you’re off the hook for that mess. My ashes are mixing with the mud of Whiskey Lake. Buddy o’mine dumped em for me—Whiskey Lake is where it all began. Now, I know you boys suck at fishing. You came up soft and lazy. You need salvation. And fishing can be your savior. Before you can inherit my fortune, you gotta prove your worth in the world of fishing. I’ve instructed my attorneys, LaCosta, Arman & Leggett, to provide you with a list of fish you must catch. They will also provide you with $10,000 cash for supplies.

BRUCE and TRACEY exchange grins.

UNCLE ABRAHAM
And by the way: there’ll be no drinking, no smoking and no gambling. Just fishing! And you have to use my tacklebox. That is all!

UNCLE ABRAHAM laughs until a coughing fit takes over.

LEGGETT
We’ve hired a retired game warden to make sure you follow the rules and to document your catch. Get the door, Arman.

WARDEN enters office.

WARDEN
You boys can call me Warden. I haven’t seen y’all in a long time. Not since you went fishing on Whiskey Lake. Remember that?

BRUCE
Sure, sure—Tracey, you got the list? Where’s the money? And the tacklebox?

WARDEN
Here’s my number. Call me when the circus starts. I’ll be watchin’.

TRACEY
We’ll be in touch.

8 EXT. PARKING LOT – DAY

TRACEY
Where’s the money, Bruce?

BRUCE
I can’t believe that’s the same warden we met when we were kids.

TRACEY
That was the last time we ever went fishing.

9 EXT. WHISKEY LAKE – DAWN

BEGIN FLASHBACK: YOUNG BRUCE and YOUNG TRACEY in a boat fishing in a Norman Rockwell vision of perfection.

YOUNG BRUCE
Hey—look at that dead guy! Hand me your rod and reel!

YOUNG TRACEY
It is a dead guy!

YOUNG BRUCE
Give me your shoelaces—I’m gonna tie him to the boat so we can tow him in!

YOUNG BRUCE hooks the man’s sweater and reels in the body. As it bumps the boat, it turns over and both kids scream. END FLASHBACK.

10 EXT. PARKING LOT – DAY

BRUCE
Warden didn’t like it when I told him we caught our limit.

TRACEY
We’re screwed.

BRUCE
I’ll cash the check.

TRACEY
I want to hold on to the money.

BRUCE
Fine! You can pick it up tonight when you bring the list!

TRACEY
Take me back to the office.

Cobra peels out.

11 EXT. HORSE TRACK – DAY

BRUCE cheering at the rail as horses enter the home stretch. ANNOUNCER makes the call.

ANNOUNCER (V.O.)
Heading into the final turn it’s Kelly Belly Kid in the lead, with Hank’s Alibi gaining!

BRUCE
Come on, Kelly Belly! Come on Kelly Belly!

ANNOUNCER (V.O.)
It’s Kelly Belly Kid and Hank’s Alibi, neck and neck!

BRUCE
Come ON, Kelly Belly Kid! Come on Kelly Belly!

ANNOUNCER (V.O.)
It’s Kelly Belly Kid! It’s Hank’s Alibi! It’s Kelly Belly Kid! Annnnnd it’s Hank’s Alibi by a nose!

BRUCE rips up ticket, cussing and screaming, drowned out by CROWD.

12 INT. BRUCE’S FARMHOUSE – NIGHT

BRUCE scribbles on a whiteboard, graphing “Species” “Location” etc., when TRACEY enters.

TRACEY
Where’s the money, Bruce?

BRUCE
It was closed. I’ll cash it in the morning—let’s see that list.

TRACEY
Where’s the check?

BRUCE
In the safe at my office. Don’t you trust me? Gimme that list! Bass, trout, catfish, crappie—

TRACEY
It’s “crah-pee”

BRUCE
Right, Right…Oh, here’s an easy one—stripper!

TRACEY
Striper.

BRUCE
Just testin’. I got us a house on Whiskey Lake. There’s a trout stream nearby, too.

TRACEY
This isn’t gonna be like that time with the skeleton key and the mansion? I’m still living that down.

BRUCE
Trust me, brother. A client of mine is out of town, he told me to watch the place. Says here the fish we catch have to be big enough to mount. Uncle Abraham expects us to win a tournament!?

TRACEY
It says, “MUST win one fishing tournament of any kind.”

Screen door opens and FELDMAN enters carrying two 18-packs of cheap beer.

FELDMAN
How’s it going?

TRACEY
We’re not supposed to drink!

BRUCE
Only when we’re fishing or when the Warden’s around, relax! Feldman, hand me a beer. We gotta focus on a tournament.

TRACEY
We’re so screwed.

FELDMAN
There’s that tagged fish contest, but that’s random luck. Take a miracle for y’all to get a tagged striper.

BRUCE
What’s the tag mean?

FELDMAN
$10,000.

BRUCE
No wonder Abraham was rich.

FELDMAN
Cousin Cooter puts on a noodling tournament down on Lake Mullethead. I could sign y’all up for that.

BRUCE
What the hell is a noodle? Type of fish?

TRACEY
No, the noodle is the bait, right? You use macaroni?

FELDMAN
It’s a catfishing tournament. Noodling is when you catch ‘em with your bare hands—the Feldmans are known for noodling. It’s like a calling.

BRUCE
Sign us up! Tomorrow we’re heading to the lake house to get set up for some bass fishing. Tracey, pick me up here at 8—I’m getting the Cobra a tune-up. Feldman, I need you here at dawn.

13 EXT. BRUCE’S FARMHOUSE – DAWN

BRUCE and FELDMAN stack supplies on the porch (water jugs, mask and fins, cooler).

FELDMAN
I scrounged up a few poles, Chief. Nothing fancy. Want me to run the Cobra to the shop?

BRUCE
Get outta the way, Feldman. Here comes the mechanic now.

GUY rumbles up on a Harley, kicks dirt onto FELDMAN. GUY is an excited twenty-something country boy.

GUY
I got the cash Mr. Simpson!

BRUCE
Good, good. Feldman, run upstairs to the attic and get my waders!

FELDMAN
Right, Chief!

GUY
Here she goes Mr. Simpson–$3,000 cash! Peaches is gonna be so surprised!

BRUCE
When’s the wedding? You pick out a shotgun yet?

GUY
Huh? Naw, Mr. Simpson! Peaches ain’t even pregnant! We’s marrying for love.

BRUCE
Here’s the keys. If you do as we agreed, then all’s good. If you don’t, there’s gonna be trouble. Now what did we agree to?

GUY
I have her back to you in a week, not a day later. And not a scratch on ‘er.

FELDMAN (covered in insulation and cobwebs)
Chief I been all through that attic and there ain’t no waders.

GUY
I can’t thank you enough Mr. Simpson—Peaches and me will never forget—

BRUCE
Right, right. Well, be sure and tune ‘er up good!

GUY
You mean Peaches, aw, yeah, haha sure thing! Bye!

BRUCE
Here, take this. Just buy some waders, Feldman. Then go down to Gina Mae’s Fish House. Buy the biggest bass you can find—here, buy two. Then go to the south side of Whiskey Lake. I’ll call you. Take this too (hands FELDMAN the mask and fins).

FELDMAN
Right, Chief. There’s Tracey.

TRACEY pulls up in old truck, kicking dirt on Feldman.

TRACEY
Bruce, I’ve been up all night researching! We’re gonna catch us the biggest bass in the lake!

BRUCE
You’re right, little brother.

They begin loading the truck, TRACEY talking a mile a minute.

TRACEY
Here’s what we gotta do, Bruce. For this time of year, we have to find some shallow brush, ‘cause that’s where they’ll be spawning. We gotta be real quiet and cast a minnow-shaped Ra-pu-luh. If that doesn’t work, we use a spinnerbait.

BRUCE
Spinsterbait’s my middle name.

TRACEY
Let’s go catch some fish.

TRACEY slams the tailgate closed, breaking the poles.

BRUCE
Feldman, add poles to the list!

14 EXT LAKEHOUSE – MORNING

TRACEY and BRUCE exit the truck.

TRACEY
Where’s the money, Bruce?

BRUCE
Bank wasn’t open yet. Here’s some petty cash. There’s a boat here already. Wait here.

BRUCE goes around back while TRACEY waits at the front door, staring at a tole-painted sign that reads “Welcome to the McCrackens.”

15 EXT MCCRACKEN’S BACK DECK – MORNING

BRUCE searches for way to enter, looks under doormat—no key—looks under flowerpot—takes out credit card and jimmies open door.

16 INT MCCRACKEN’S LAKE HOUSE – MORNING

BRUCE heads to front door, kicking some mail out of sight.

BRUCE
Welcome home.

TRACEY
Who are these McCrackens?

BRUCE
Colleague of mine. Let’s load up the boat. I’ll be right down—I need to make a call.

TRACEY
I’ve got the tacklebox. Hurry up.

BRUCE
Feldman? You there yet? Got the fish? Take the trail to the old still, get in the water and hide. When I throw the lure, set her on like we planned. (hangs up, calls WARDEN)

Warden? Yeah, this is Bruce Simpson. Meet us over on the south side of Whiskey Lake. We’re gonna catch us a bass today….

INTERCUT with WARDEN at breakfast table with cereal in a Mickey Mouse bowl. He’s wearing a wifebeater and boxers, a cigar burns next to the transistor radio. He is working a Marilyn Monroe jigsaw puzzle.

WARDEN
So you two city squares are gonna catch a fish, huh? This is gonna be more fun than setting an outhouse on fire.

17 EXT BOAT DOCK – MORNING

The brothers stare at the McCrackens’ pontoon boat.

TRACEY
We can’t bass fish in this!

BRUCE
Sure we can! Trust me. It floats.

The brothers begin loading the boat; Tracey’s sunglasses fall into the lake.

TRACEY
That’s a bad sign.

BRUCE reaches into a storage bin and hands TRACEY a fancy pair of women’s sunglasses.

BRUCE
Here—your luck has changed.

18 EXT SOUTH SIDE OF WHISKEY LAKE – MORNING

FELDMAN, wearing mask and fins, struggles with the dead fish and wades into the water. He hunkers down and hides among some reeds.

19 EXT BOAT — MORNING

TRACEY
Do you even know how to drive one of these?

BRUCE
Trust me.

BRUCE backs out of the slip, catching the canopy and tearing it. Canopy falls on TRACEY.

20 EXT SOUTH SIDE OF WHISKEY LAKE – MORNING

The WARDEN sits in a folding chair drinking a beer and peering through binoculars.

21 EXT BOAT — MORNING

BRUCE kicks back in the seat as TRACEY drives.

BRUCE
There’s some brush cover on the south side—head for that. Hey! Hey—you may want to watch out for that—

Loud boom as boat runs over a buoy.

TRACEY
What was that?!

BRUCE
Buoy.

22 EXT BOAT, SOUTH SIDE WHISKEY LAKE — MORNING

Pontoon approaches bank.

BRUCE
There’s a good spot—slow down!

TRACEY
No, I like this over here—

BRUCE
No, wait, slow down!

Pontoon boat runs aground.

BRUCE
We’re anchored. I’ll fish these reeds over here, you fish on the other side. I got the spinster, you take the Rap-u-luh.

TRACEY pulls back to cast and hooks Bruce’s shorts.

BRUCE
AAAAAAGGHHHH! Get it off!

TRACEY
Wait, I’ll get it!

BRUCE
No, no—stop! Stop!

TRACEY
It’s coming!

BRUCE
Drop the pole! Stop!

Loud ripping sound as shorts fly into lake, leaving Bruce standing in his boxers.

TRACEY
Sorry—it’s these damn glasses! (throws them at BRUCE) Can we fish now?

BRUCE
Look–this is how it’s done!

BRUCE casts straight into the water.

TRACEY
No, watch me—

TRACEY casts into a tree.

BRUCE
Did you research how to get out of a tree?

TRACEY
As a matter of fact, I did! You just pull straight back, keeping the tension proportional to the torque—aaagghh! (tree branch smacks him in face)

BRUCE
Tracey, just relax! Sit down for a minute. Hand me a bottle of water.

TRACEY
This water looks kinda funny.

BRUCE
That’s my water—I like it cloudy.

23 EXT WHISKEY LAKE SHORE — DAY

WARDEN has been joined in his stake out by various woodland animals, all watching the lake.

WARDEN
These buffoons are stupider than I thought.

24 EXT BOAT — DAY

BRUCE
Get that lure outta there and start fishing. I see a honey hole over here.

BRUCE casts, hitting FELDMAN in the mask. FELDMAN grabs line, hooks fish, slips and jerks the line. BRUCE sets the hook and reels FELDMAN and fish to the boat, banging FELDMAN’S head on the pontoon. FELDMAN tosses bass into the boat and swims away.

25 EXT WHISKEY LAKE SHORE — DAY

WARDEN
Move that branch, idiot! I can’t see nothing!

26 EXT BOAT — DAY

BRUCE
Look at this one, little brother!

TRACEY
Bruce that fish ain’t breathing.

BRUCE
He’s just stunned from hitting the pontoon.

WARDEN walks up.

WARDEN
Looks like you boys got lucky.

TRACEY
It’s called the Simpson blood.

WARDEN
Stacey, your lure never hit the water. You caught a pair of pants and a Christmas Tree. Bottom line, there’s still a lot of fishing left. You guys may be the worst I’ve ever seen. Hold it up, Bruce.

STILL SHOT. BRUCE in his boxers holding fish.

27 EXT LAKEHOUSE DECK — NIGHT

TRACEY
I can’t believe how easy that was!

BRUCE
That was easier than pulling corn out of a donkey’s ear rolling out the truck patch!

TRACEY
That makes no sense, Bruce. I’m not sure how you caught that bass, but trout fishing is nothing like bass fishing. I watched all the videos—we need to get the fly rods and pick out the best woolly booger in Uncle’s tacklebox.

[Sounds of distant laughter and music.]

BRUCE
Sounds like there’s a party going on down the street. Listen little brother, here’s the plan: We’re gonna sleep in, get up and pitch a camp along the Little Big River. We’ll catch us a fat trout, and we’re closer to the money. Right now, I think we need to see about some dinner at this party.

TRACEY
Bruce, we got to get to bed. I have to look up some stuff. I’m telling you, trout fishing is different.

BRUCE
Come on, we’ll go say hi, get some dinner, and we’ll come right back.

CUT TO

28 INT NEIGHBOR’S LAKEHOUSE – NIGHT

Wild party in progress—TRACEY swings his shirt over his head, dancing. BRUCE dances atop a coffee table.

29 INT HALLWAY — NIGHT

TRACEY is talking to a blonde.

TRACEY
I’m a professional fisherman.

BLONDE
Reel me in, sugar!

30 EXT BALCONY — NIGHT

BRUCE brags to several women.

BRUCE
I’m the CEO of Simpson Enterprises—we do it all. Any of you ladies into modeling?

31 INT KITCHEN — NIGHT

BRUCE and TRACEY, plates piled high, work the buffet. A large man enters.

TRACEY
Hey isn’t that the wrestler, the Sasquatch?

BRUCE
Oh yes, the ultimate scam, wrestling. I’d like to ask him a few questions. Here, hold my plate.

BRUCE grabs a beer and approaches the wrestler.

BRUCE
So you’re a wrestler, huh? What would you do with a real man?

Man pile-drives BRUCE into kitchen floor and exits.

BRUCE
Oh, that’s what you’d do.

TRACEY stuffs shrimp in his mouth.

TRACEY
Ouch! Nice form, Bruce.

32 INT MCCRACKEN LAKEHOUSE — MORNING

BRUCE and TRACEY, sprawled on couches, snoring. FELDMAN lays on the horn outside, waking the brothers.

BRUCE
McCrackens!

TRACEY
Huh?

BRUCE
Oh, it’s Feldman.

33 EXT LAKEHOUSE DRIVEWAY — MORNING

FELDMAN loads the truck as BRUCE and TRACEY sit inside truck, hungover.

FELDMAN
It’s all loaded up.

FELDMAN closes tailgate on fishing poles.

BRUCE
Feldman, get outta here and go buy some fly rods. Meet us tomorrow morning at the Old Bridge. And remember what I told you.

34 EXT LITTLE BIG RIVER — DAY

BRUCE and TRACEY set up tent.

TRACEY
Says here: put the pin in the bottom, then latch and bend.

BRUCE
Okay, I’m bending it.

TRACEY
Not that…

Tent pole racks TRACEY.

BRUCE
Ouch. Too much?

TRACEY
Just hold that other end. And don’t move.

BRUCE
I got it in, I got it in. Pull ‘er through, fast!

TRACEY bends pole; sound of tent ripping as pole slaps BRUCE in the face.

TRACEY
I’ll get the duct tape.

CUT TO

TRACEY puts final piece of tape on the battered tent.

TRACEY
That should do it.

BRUCE
I’m tired, let me in there.

Tent collapses on BRUCE.

TRACEY
I see what we need to do. Get out of there.

They wrestle with the tent. Time lapse of sun going down to sounds of the brothers arguing over the tent.

35 EXT OLD BRIDGE ROAD — MORNING

The Cobra races down the road, driven by HIPSTER WEDDING MUSICIAN. The runaway bride, PEACHES, hangs out the window, trailing her veil.

PEACHES
I feel so alive!

36 EXT SIMPSON CAMP — MORNING

BRUCE crawls out of ripped, patched and rigged tent, stretches and yawns. As he answers the call of nature, the Cobra screeches across the bridge. A bridal veil floats down and lands at his feet.

37 EXT RIVERBANK — MORNING

TRACEY fumbles with a pair of waders as BRUCE talks on phone.

BRUCE
Good morning, Warden. You ready to witness some first-class trout fishing?

INTERCUT WARDEN at kitchen table working Marilyn Monroe puzzle.

WARDEN
You wouldn’t know a trout from a carp. See you clowns soon.

FELDMAN pulls up to camp.

FELDMAN
Hey Chief! Here’s your fly rods.

BRUCE
You get the spear gun?

FELDMAN
Right here, Chief.

FELDMAN trips, shoots spear gun into his shoe.

BRUCE
Get that arrow out of your foot and get to the other side of the riverbank.

38 EXT RIVER — MORNING

BRUCE and TRACEY wade in river in full trout fishing garb. Downriver, an OLD WOMAN on the bank pulls in a trout with a cane pole.

TRACEY
See that? They’re biting. We got to get a bunch of feeder slack out of this spinning reel. Then cast the line about seven times and get over in that pool.

BRUCE pulls frantically on the line.

TRACEY
No, not that much. Like this.

BRUCE, entangled in the line, slips on a rock and goes under.

TRACEY
Stop messing around! Watch me, it’s all in the wrist.

TRACEY begins looping motions

TRACEY
See, I got the hang of it.

Fly lure catches tent and TRACEY jerks it to the ground.

BRUCE
Nice cast. You keep practicing, I’m going upriver.

39 EXT OLD BRIDGE — MORNING

WARDEN leans on bridge rail, glaring through binoculars.

WARDEN
This is more fun than cow-tipping in the moonlight.

40 EXT RIVER — MORNING

TRACEY (casting)
Oh yeah, oh yeah. I got it, I got it…

TRACEY lets loose with a big cast into a tree, looks over to see OLD WOMAN laughing as she pulls in another trout.

41 EXT UPRIVER — MORNING

BRUCE wades upriver holding the spear gun. Trips, goes under, boot emerges with an arrow through it.

42 EXT RIVER — MORNING

TRACEY tries pulling lure out of tree. Pole slips out of his hands and shoots up into the tree. OLD WOMAN catches third fish.

43 EXT UPRIVER — MORNING

BRUCE sits on a boulder, empties a snake out of his boot and goes under again.

44 EXT RIVER — MORNING

TRACEY greets the OLD WOMAN.

TRACEY
Howdy, ma’am.

OLD WOMAN
(spits tobacco juice) This your first rodeo, young man?

TRACEY
Yeah, we’re just learning. We’re really bass fishermen. We’re having trouble with these trout—what’s your secret, ma’am?

OLD WOMAN
Why, it’s simple—just spit on your lure. Here’s a plug of hand-cut tobacco—go ahead, try it!

TRACEY
We’ll give it a shot—thanks!

TRACEY starts chewing a huge plug of tobacco.

OLD WOMAN
Son, don’t swallow it—you’re turning white as a ghost!

TRACEY
Okay, thanks for the tip.

TRACEY stumbles back into river and begins puking.

OLD WOMAN
He ain’t too bright.

45 EXT BRIDGE — MORNING

WARDEN
Stacey…you are dumber than your own bait.

46 EXT UPRIVER — DAY

BRUCE hunts trout with the spear gun.

BRUCE
I see you under that rock, come to daddy.

BRUCE pulls trigger; arrow ricochets off boulder and knocks off his hat.

47 EXT RIVER — DAY

TRACEY is up in the tree trying to dislodge his rod when the limb breaks. He plummets to the bank.

OLD WOMAN
Ouch.

48 EXT UPRIVER — DAY

BRUCE
I got you now.

BRUCE shoots and hits trout; chaos ensues as he slips and goes under with the fish.

49 EXT RIVER — DAY

TRACEY pulls vines out of his hair. BRUCE wades up holding trout.

TRACEY
What’s that big hole?

BRUCE
I hooked him in the back. I liked to never got the hook out.

50 EXT BRIDGE — DAY

WARDEN
Are you kiddin’ me.

51 EXT RIVER — DAY

BRUCE (yelling)
Hey WARDEN, where are ya? Got another trophy!

WARDEN walks up with camera.

WARDEN
Lemme see that—that’s one sorry-looking brown trout.

STILL SHOT of BRUCE and TRACEY with mangled trout.

52 INT MCCRACKEN RV — MORNING

MRS. MCCRACKEN attempts cooking breakfast in the RV, to MR. MCCRACKEN’S dissatisfaction.

MR. MCCRACKEN
Betty’s coffee is better than this hog slop!

MRS. MCCRACKEN
Maybe you wish the maid was here with us on our second honeymoon?

MR. MCCRACKEN
Oh, where’s my eggs?

MRS. MCCRACKEN plunks down a platter of blackened toast and burned eggs.

MR. MCCRACKEN
Looks like the Waffle Hut again.

53 INT LAKEHOUSE — MORNING

TRACEY draws on the whiteboard: stick figures of people and fish, a map of the lake and some trees.

TRACEY
We picked the perfect time—we’re right in the middle of the crappie spawn. Some big trophy slabs’ll be nesting up in shallow cover, say right about here. I’m gonna use Uncle’s famous jumpin’ jig. You use a minnow and a bobber.

BRUCE reaches over and draws an “X” in the trees.

BRUCE
Keep in mind, there’s no crappie up in these trees.

TRACEY
No, this is my kind of fishing. I got a Z-13 Lightning crappie pole, it’s guaranteed to catch fish. But we can’t be fishing for crappie out of that pontoon boat—we need a jon boat.

BRUCE
We can borrow Cooter’s—I’ll put Feldman on it.

TRACEY
I have to do some business in town. You know, I work for a living. I’ll pick up some supplies but tonight we have to get to bed early. We’re up at 4 am—prime crappie time.

BRUCE
Little brother, we’re gonna be rich.

54 EXT LAKEHOUSE DECK — DAY

BRUCE and FELDMAN lounge on the deck. FELDMAN’s bandaged foot is propped on a table.

BRUCE
Since you’re all gimped up, I got an easy job for you. Tell me about this Feldman family stink bait.

FELDMAN
Alls I need is a bucket of liquefied carp, some coon innards, and a blender.

BRUCE
Get the recipe over to Gina Mae’s. She’s going to cook us up a batch.

FELDMAN
You sure, Chief? It’s some strong stuff!

BRUCE
I’ve known Gina Mae since we were kids. Oddly enough, she enjoys a good stink.

FELDMAN
Weren’t y’all engaged?

BRUCE
Have the jim boat and the stink bait in place on the west side of Whiskey Lake. We’ll be at the Point Cedar ramp at 4 am sharp. Now get outta here—I gotta take this call… Simpson Enterprises, we do it all.

INTERCUT — GUY sits on a motel bed looking miserable.

GUY
Mr. Simpson, you’re not gonna believe this. Peaches run off in the Cobra. There was this guitar player at the wedding reception—she liked his man-bun. What should we do, go to the police?

BRUCE
We’re not gonna do anything; you are going to get that car back or—

GUY holds phone away from ear as Bruce screams unintelligibly.

BRUCE
Now do we understand each other?

GUY
Yes sir, Mr. Simpson, I understand. No need for all that—I’ll get her back—the car I mean—

BRUCE
Listen closely: Get with Feldman, get your motorcycle, and run her down. [click]

GUY
Yes sir. Hello? Hello?

55 INT GINA MAE’S FISH HOUSE — DAY

GINA MAE (a cougar with a Stevie Nicks-style wardrobe) stands with FELDMAN in her ramshackle kitchen. GINA MAE studies the stinkbait recipe.

GINA MAE
I’ve cooked worse. I like the idea of these coon innards—it’ll thicken the carp broth right nice. This is gonna make a good stink. I’ll fire up the Dutch oven out back. It’ll take a while to stew down.

FELDMAN
That stink don’t bother me. Kinda reminds me of home.

GINA MAE
The Feldman family tree is more of a whittled-down stump, ain’t it?

FELDMAN
We are special. I’ll be back later to jar up the stinkbait.

GINA MAE enthusiastically begins grabbing pans and ladles.

56 EXT GINA MAE’S FISH HOUSE — DAY

FELDMAN walks to his truck oblivious to the Cobra zooming past, PEACHES whooping from the passenger side. FELDMAN turns to look, the car is gone. Shakes his head.

57 EXT MCCRACKEN RV — DAY

The MCCRACKENS sit under the RV canopy, bored. MRS. MCCRACKEN reads a magazine.

MR. MCCRACKEN
Look at this tick bite. I don’t know how much more I can take.

MRS MCCRACKEN
I’ve taken 30 years of your smart mouth. There’s a strawberry festival down at Grand Junction and I’m gonna be there when they crown Miss Berry Patch—you promised!

MR. MCCRACKEN
I did nothing of the sort! I promised to take you to the kudzu festival—we already did that—which was about as fun as visiting your sister.

MRS. MCCRACKEN
Don’t start in on my family—they tried to warn me I was marrying beneath me. I should have married Elmer—he’s up to 12 chicken houses now. He knew how to treat a Southern belle. Take me home!

MR. MCCRACKEN
I envy Elmer. None of his hens can talk. And as for your sister—If I have to hear another word about her gout, or her bunions—

MRS. MCCRACKEN
I’ll be packing!

MR. MCCRACKEN
Good! At least you ain’t cooking!

58 INT MR. SCOURGE’S ACCOUNTING OFFICE — DAY

TRACEY
I need to reschedule my meetings for the week—I got family business to attend to.

MR. SCOURGE
I just read the Boatatorium report. We don’t have time for this.

TRACEY
Let the lawyers handle it—I’ve had a death in the family.

MR. SCOURGE
Well that is bad timing.

59 INT TRACEY’S ACCOUNTING OFFICE – DAY

TRACEY resumes surfing the Internet, sees a website: “Is it Your Dream to Own Your Own Sports Bar?” He clicks link—alarms start going off and YOU’RE FIRED flashes red on the screen. TRACEY storms out of office.

TRACEY
That’s fine, Scourge! I’m about to be rich!

60 EXT GINA MAE’S BACKYARD — DAY

GINA MAE stands over a bubbling, boiling Dutch oven, drops a handful of chicken feet into the brew, stirs, sniffs the ladle, gags.

GINA MAE
Oh, Lord help! Auughghg (gag, cough) (sniffs again) Mmmmm, not bad. (replaces lid)

FELDMAN
Yoo-hoo, Gina Mae, where you at, girl?

GINA MAE
Out back, you got the jars? It’s almost ready.

FELDMAN
I could smell it all the way in the parking lot. But something’s different.

GINA MAE
I added a few ingredients of my own—may be my best work. NASA might be interested in this—it’s a stink too powerful for this world! Don’t get too close, Feldman—

FELDMAN
Just a little whiff—

GINA MAE
NO! Don’t touch that lid!

FELDMAN uses the hook to lift the Dutch oven’s iron lid, a cloud billows out, FELDMAN gags uncontrollably.

FELDMAN
I got some on me!

FELDMAN drops the lid, causing a tiny droplet of stinkbait to splash onto GINA MAE’S cleavage. GINA MAE screams and takes off running through the woods toward the river.

GINA MAE
Get the goat soap! Get the goat soap!

61 EXT WOODS — DAY

FELDMAN, holding a bar of homemade soap, runs through the woods after GINA MAE. Every few paces he gets hit in the face with an article of her clothing. By the time he gets to the riverbank, she’s in the water naked and he is holding her clothes in one hand, soap in the other.

FELDMAN
Here’s the soap, Gina Mae. And your clothes.

GINA MAE
Burn ‘em, you idiot. And bring me my overalls. Hurry! The fish are dying!

Fish go belly-up around GINA MAE.

62 EXT POINT CEDAR BOAT RAMP — 4 AM

FELDMAN has boat ready. The brothers pull up in TRACEY’S truck.

FELDMAN
She’s all ready to go, Chief.

TRACEY
What IS that? Something dead around here?

BRUCE
I had Gina Mae cook us up some stinkbait, just in case. As long as I catch it on a minnow, it doesn’t matter what it smells like.

FELDMAN
I wouldn’t use it unless you have to Chief—it’s a real bad batch!

BRUCE
Feldman, you stink worse than a hog waller full of dead skunks. Go sneak up on a bath—and then head to the office. That boy’s coming for his Harley—he’ll fill you in.

TRACEY
Wait, he’s not driving my truck smelling like that!

BRUCE
Keep your eyes on the prize! Let’s get this boat in the water before the sun comes up.

TRACEY gets in FELDMAN’s truck, BRUCE climbs in the john boat and unhooks it from the trailer.

BRUCE
All right, take it slow.

TRACEY
How far do I go?

BRUCE
Keep it coming slow, ‘til the wheels go under.

TRACEY
It’s turning!

BRUCE
No, turn the other way! Watch out, it drops off.

TRACEY
I got it—wheels under.

BRUCE
Not truck wheels!

Trailer goes vertical, catapulting john boat into the lake. TRACEY guns the engine, lodging trailer against a rock. Sound of ripping steel. He jerks it free and drags it out of the water, a mangled mess.

BRUCE
Park that and come on! I’m taking on water—this boat’s a piece of junk!

TRACEY
I forgot to tell you—put the plug in!

63 EXT ON THE BANK OF WHISKEY LAKE — DAWN

BRUCE and TRACEY bail out the boat.

BRUCE
You forgot to tell me.

TRACEY
You finish this, I’ll get the trolling motor hooked up.

64 EXT WHISKEY LAKE — DAWN

TRACEY
We’ve got to start fishing—the sun’s already up. I’m gonna troll us over to those fir trees.

TRACEY guns trolling motor like a motorcycle. It comes off the boat, circling in the water full throttle.

TRACEY
Unhook the battery!

BRUCE rips terminal off battery. Trolling motor sinks.

65 EXT WHISKEY LAKE — MORNING

TRACEY paddles the boat as BRUCE calls WARDEN.

BRUCE
Good morning.

INTERCUT to Warden at his morning ritual: cereal, cigar, Marilyn Monroe puzzle. The puzzle is coming together nicely.

WARDEN
What time’s the comedy start today, Simpson?

BRUCE
You’re a funny man, Warden. Put your little ranger outfit on and come to the show. Point Cedar side of Whiskey Lake. We’re just getting started.

WARDEN (to Marilyn)
I hate to leave you, darlin’. I’ll be back soon.

66 EXT WHISKEY LAKE — MORNING

BRUCE attempts to get a minnow on his hook, drops minnow and has to catch it flopping in the boat. His cane pole swings toward TRACEY, who ducks.

TRACEY
Get serious, Bruce! Hook it.

BRUCE stabs minnow through the back.

TRACEY
No, no. You’ll kill it—it’s got to swim.

BRUCE tosses dead minnow over his shoulder into the water. A huge thrashing, and the minnow is gone. He puts the next hook through a minnow’s tail and plops it in the water. BRUCE stares at the bobber, which quickly goes under a couple of times.

BRUCE
I got one! I got one!

TRACEY
Bruce, that’s your minnow.

BRUCE
My bad.

TRACEY
Here’s how it’s done.

TRACEY sets hook and gets hung up.

BRUCE’s bobber disappears amid violent thrashing in the water.

BRUCE
Whoa WHOA, I got something big! Get the net.

TRACEY fumbles with the net while BRUCE tries to hold on as the pole jerks from side to side.

TRACEY
Hang in there Bruce, tire it out!

BRUCE
Here he comes—get the net!

TRACEY nets the fish—not a crappie but a large Alligator gar.

BRUCE
What is it? A monster!?

TRACEY
Look at those teeth! It’s prehistoric!

The gar bites through the net and jumps to the floor of the boat. BRUCE grabs a paddle and begins whaling on it.

67 EXT SIMPSON ENTERPRISES — AFTERNOON

FELDMAN rolls the Harley up to GUY.

GUY
Think I know where to find her. I found a flyer. That hipster’s band is playing tonight at the Crippled Pig.

FELDMAN
You better hope she is. The Chief don’t play games. We’re running outta time. I’ll meet you there.

GUY
I’m gonna get my Peaches back one way or another.

GUY revs up and speeds off, throwing dirt on FELDMAN.

68 EXT WHISKEY LAKE — AFTERNOON

Time passes as BRUCE’s pile of empty “water” bottles grows.

69 EXT WHISKEY LAKE, POINT CEDAR SIDE — AFTERNOON

WARDEN sits in folding chair on the bank, watching through binoculars. His woodland pals gather to watch as well.

WARDEN
Catch another gar—that was fun!

70 EXT WHISKEY LAKE — AFTERNOON

BRUCE
I can’t take this anymore! Get out the stinkbait.

TRACEY
I got one!

TRACEY pulls up a dripping tree limb.

TRACEY
You’re right, time for stinkbait.

TRACEY hands the jar to BRUCE, who begins unscrewing the lid.

BRUCE
Get the poles ready—we’re gonna pop a glob of this on the hooks—oh Dear Lord God Amighty!

BRUCE tosses the jar to TRACEY as a plume of black mist engulfs the boat. TRACEY screams; they toss the jar back and forth like a hot potato, BRUCE retching.

TRACEY
Get the net! Net it!

BRUCE
I got it! Throw it!

The jar sails through the hole in the net and into the lake. Fish go belly up and surround boat.

TRACEY
Those over there are crappies—I’ve seen pictures.

BRUCE
There’s a big one.

BRUCE scoops up the fish with his hat.

71 EXT POINT CEDAR SIDE OF WHISKEY LAKE — DAY

WARDEN and animals sniff the air.

WARDEN
My God, what is that smell?

WARDEN stumbles away as animals scatter.

72 EXT POINT CEDAR BOAT RAMP — DAY

WARDEN
What died up in here?

BRUCE
Looks like bears do crap in the woods.

TRACEY
I don’t smell nothin’!

WARDEN
Hold it up so I can get out of here.

STILL SHOT: BRUCE and TRACEY cover their noses as they hold up the crappie.

73 INT CRIPPLED PIG — NIGHT

Band plays as PEACHES dances in her tattered wedding gown.

74 EXT CRIPPLED PIG — NIGHT

FELDMAN and GUY attempt to get past the BOUNCER.

BOUNCER
Nope. It’s a private party tonight.

GUY
I got to get my wife—Peaches!

FELDMAN
We’ll be going now—(whispers) shut up and follow me around back.

75 EXT ALLEYWAY BEHIND CRIPPLED PIG — NIGHT

FELDMAN
Climb up on my shoulders—that’s the window of the ladies’ room.

GUY
How’d you know?

FELDMAN
I’ve serenaded a few rough-cuts in my time.

GUY
She’s a drinker—she’ll be in here soon. I wrote down my feelings—

FELDMAN
Do you see anyone? I can’t hold you for long—send somebody to fetch her. (SOUND OF FLUSHING)

GUY
Ma’am? Up here! Hey can you fetch Peaches, it’s important.

WOMAN (VOICE OVER)
You pervert! Oh, it’s you. I’ll get her down off the bar. This should be good.

Sounds of women chattering excitedly as they pack into the restroom. Intermittent sounds of flushing.

GUY
Peaches? You in there?

PEACHES
Yes I’m here and so is half the bar. What do you want?

GUY
I wrote you a poem (FLUSH)

PEACHES
Well get to it, I ain’t got all night.

GUY
How do I love thee? Lemme count up all the ways. (FLUSH)
Um, number one: I love that crease in your left bun.
I love how we have lots of fun. (FLUSH)
Number two: Your cooking ain’t so bad
And I’ll never forget that first night we had (FLUSH)
Number four—

PEACHES
Fool, you skipped one!

FELDMAN
Hurry up!

GUY
Number three: I think that I shall never see
A pair as purty as your double-D’s… (FLUSH)
And Number five—I mean, four—I love your hair, I love your smell
And your big eyes, and big ol’ thighs.
Now darlin’ come and ride with me
Though we are but two
We can someday make three. (FLUSH)

Sound of applause and flushing.

FELDMAN
I’m losing it!

GUY
Peaches, come on!

WOMAN
She left at number three. That was right purty, Hon!

FELDMAN and GUY collapse as a flashlight blinds them; they look up to see the BOUNCER glaring down.

76 EXT UNEMPLOYMENT OFFICE — MORNING

TRACEY walks up and stands below the sign “Unemployment Office.” He puts on his sunglasses. Sign changes to read: “Losers This Way.”

77 EXT GINA MAE’S FISH TACO TRUCK — DAY

Logo on side of truck depicts a taco shell enfolding a fish.

GINA MAE
So, old man Abraham has turned y’all into fishermen.

BRUCE
It’s been easy so far. I’m gonna be rich, Gina Mae.

GINA MAE
Yeah, easy! Like those bass Feldman bought. Or that stink that put me in the lake.

BRUCE
Listen, I need your help. I got a runaway bride driving a black Cobra. She may be traveling with a hipster wearing a man-bun.

GINA MAE
You mean Peaches? I’ve seen her running all over town acting crazy. She’s been in that wedding gown for days. People are starting to talk.

BRUCE
That would be her. I need to get that car back, Gina Mae.

GINA MAE
What’s in it for me?

BRUCE
You know I’ll always take care of you.

GINA MAE
You’re such a stinker. I’ll find her.

BRUCE
Good. I got a noodling contest to win tomorrow, then catch a stripper, and we’re rich.

GINA MAE
Striper.

78 EXT LAKE HOUSE — NIGHT

WARDEN and the brothers sit around a fire pit, drinking beer.

WARDEN
Thanks for the meal, boys, but I’m getting a little too lit. I better head on home.

BRUCE
You can’t leave—not before you try some of this moonshine.

WARDEN
Well, maybe just a swaller.
BRUCE
We just want to bury the hatchet and get on better terms.

TRACEY
You kind of freaked us out when we were kids, is all.

WARDEN
I was upset over old man Peterson’s heart attack. Y’all were just kids and I was a little hard on you.

BRUCE
Have another swaller, Warden. It’s all good now.

WARDEN
No, no—I got to head on–

[CUT TO: WARDEN and the brothers drunkenly singing “Born to Be Wild.”]

79 EXT LAKE HOUSE — EARLY MORNING

WARDEN and brothers slouch around the dying fire.

BRUCE
I may be the greatest fisherman of all time.

TRACEY
It’s the Simpson Blood.

WARDEN
Simpson blood? Y’all been cheating your way through this whole thing. I saw Feldman’s beady eyes in the weeds. I saw you hunting trout with a speargun. And that stinkbait…I can still smell it.

TRACEY
What are you babbling about?

WARDEN
Are you dumb or just ignorant?

TRACEY
I knew about the stinkbait but—

BRUCE
We don’t know what you’re talking about, Warden. We got a noodle and a stripper left and we’re home free. Warden?

TRACEY
He’s passed out. What have you done, Bruce? I knew you were up to something! This always happens. What are we gonna do now? You screwed us again!

BRUCE
We’ll pay him off and we’ll stop cheating.

TRACEY
It’s too late! He’s gonna tell Leggett. You blew it!

BRUCE
If he hasn’t blown our cover by now, he’ll take a check.

80 EXT COUSIN COOTER’S COMPOUND — DAY

BRUCE stands with FELDMAN, who sneaks him a .45.

FELDMAN
Here, Chief, just in case. It ain’t wise to noodle alone.

BRUCE
Perfect.

FELDMAN
Take that trail down to the pond—the honey-hole is under the willer tree. You can win this thing—ain’t but three people in the tournament. Everybody’s still asleep after partying last night. Old man Hawkins is half-blind, and cousin Teeter ain’t got but three fingers—that ain’t good for gripping.

TRACEY
I thought his name was Cooter.

FELDMAN
Teeter’s Cooter’s brother. And his cousin. It’s complicated.

BRUCE
Go get the Warden—we left him passed out at the lake house. And then find my car!

FELDMAN
Right, Chief.

81 INT THE RV — DAY

MRS. MCCRACKEN wrestles with a road atlas.

MR. MCCRACKEN
Is it exit 32 or 33, woman?

MRS. MCCRACKEN
Why does it matter, Hon? Don’t they all have gas?

MR. MCCRACKEN
I’ll be damned if you’re going to break family tradition—the McCrackens are an Exxon clan! And Ford.

MRS. MCCRACKEN
The print’s so small! And all these numbers! Which highway are we on now?

MR. MCCRACKEN
Give me that map.

MRS. MCCRACKEN
Don’t you dare take your eyes off the road, you Philistine!

MR. MCCRACKEN
Give it to me!

MRS. MCCRACKEN
No!

MR. MCCRACKEN
Right now!

MRS. MCCRACKEN
Beast!

The McCRACKENS fight each other for the map, which rips. MR. MCCRACKEN throws his half out the window. The map lands on the windshield of a semi; the truck jackknifes out of control.

MR. MCCRACKEN
Look what you’ve done now.

MRS. MCCRACKEN
Right there—it’s Exit 32! Right, right, turn right!

The RV swerves across lanes and exits, leaving a trail of wreckage on the highway.

82 EXT COOTER’S POND — DAY

BRUCE and TRACEY stand on the bank.

BRUCE
Slide in that honey hole and pull us up one, brother.

TRACEY
No, this looks like a Bruce job.

BRUCE
You know I don’t swim good.

TRACEY
It’s five feet deep.

BRUCE
You haven’t caught a fish yet.

TRACEY
All right! How hard can this be—all you do is use your fingers as bait. I’m going in.

TRACEY goes under, pulls out an old boot.

BRUCE
At least it’s not a tree.

TRACEY
The hole’s wide open now—I’m going in!

TRACEY goes under for a long time, then shoots out of the water screaming, his arm engulfed by a giant catfish.

TRACEY
Get it off! Get it off!

BRUCE wrestles TRACEY onto the bank as they fight the fish.

BRUCE
I got it! I got it! AUUUGHGHGH I got finned!

TRACEY
My arm’s numb!

BRUCE
Hold still, I’ll shoot its tail!

TRACEY
No, no!

BRUCE fires the gun, blowing the tail off the catfish, and TRACEY takes off into the woods.

BRUCE
Stop! I’m coming!

BRUCE shoots at a limb, which falls, halting TRACEY.

83 EXT COOTER’S COMPOUND — DAY

WARDEN, wearing sunglasses, prepares to take the photo.

BRUCE
How you feeling today, Warden? Remember anything from last night?

WARDEN
I feel great, boy. This ain’t my first barn dance. You call this jake-leg business a fishing tournament?

BRUCE
Said so on the form. Let me tell you something: we’re down to a stripper and this little contest is over. I want you to know the Simpson brothers take care of their friends.

WARDEN
I work for Arman and Leggett—I don’t need any friends.

TRACEY
I’m bleeding over here!

STILL SHOT: BRUCE and TRACEY hold catfish with a duct-taped tail; TRACEY lifting a tacky-looking homemade trophy.

84 INT LAKEHOUSE — NIGHT

BRUCE and TRACEY (his arm in a bandage) sprawl on couches in the den.

TRACEY
You heard what he said—he ain’t our friend!

BRUCE
When the money comes in—that’s when the deals are made.

TRACEY
All we had to do was catch some fish but you had to screw it up!

BRUCE
The only fish you caught, caught you!

TRACEY
At least it was an honest catch!

BRUCE
Honest! You bailed on Simpson Enterprises because you wanted to be an honest man, put a noose on and push papers! And what happens? They fire you.

TRACEY
I got sick of being the goat in every one of your schemes.

BRUCE
Look, we gotta figure out how to catch a striper tomorrow, and then see what happens.

TRACEY
It’s not that easy. Stripers are hard to catch. They can be in 10 to 30 feet of water. I’m going to bed—you work on your next scam.

BRUCE
Trust me, brother. We’re gonna do this one straight. Then we’re gonna get our money and build you a sports bar.

BRUCE’s phone rings.

85 INT ROADSIDE MOTEL — NIGHT

The MCCRACKENS are in bed, MRS. MCCRACKEN wearing cold cream and an eye mask; the TV flickers in the background.

MR. MCCRACKEN
Simpson—where’ve you been? I’ve been leaving messages for days.

INTERCUT with BRUCE in Lakehouse den

BRUCE
I’m a busy man, Mr. McCracken. How’s the honeymoon?

MR. MCCRACKEN
The honeymoon’s over. We’ll be back tomorrow to pick up the car.

BRUCE
Tomorrow? Well…we’ll have her nice and shiny for you—about what time?

MR. MCCRACKEN
You better. We’ll be there by 5 o’clock sharp.

BRUCE
Well that’s perfect—enjoy your evening, sir.

MRS. MCCRACKEN
Rub my neck, Hon.

MR. MCCRACKEN absent mindedly rubs her neck while flipping channels.

MR. MCCRACKEN
Enjoy my evening.

BRUCE hangs up phone and notices framed photographs of the MCCRACKENS, including one of MR. MCCRACKEN holding an elephant gun and posing with a trophy bull elephant.

86 INT COFFEESHOP — MORNING

FELDMAN
They’re on their way back—we have to find it today!

GUY
I’m a dead man. Where could she be?

FELDMAN
Think, man! What did you and Peaches do on Saturday mornings?

GUY
Aw, now, ain’t that a bit personal?

FELDMAN
After? What did you do after? Did you go someplace, I mean.

GUY
Well Peaches did like to check out the Farmer’s Market. She enjoys squeezing the melons.

FELDMAN
Me too. It’s open til noon.

GUY
Peaches ain’t an early riser, that’s for sure. We got some time yet.

WAITRESS plunks down two platters piled with bacon, eggs, grits and pancakes.
FELDMAN
Chief would want us to eat.

87 INT TRUCK – MORNING

BRUCE and TRACEY drive to far side of Whiskey Lake to catch the final fish: the striper.

BRUCE
We got another problem.

TRACEY
Great.

BRUCE
Well, you know my RV—I’m a little behind on payments. So I rented it out to some folks. Then I took their car and rented it out. Now, I got the RV coming home and their car got stolen.

TRACEY
You talking about that Cobra?

BRUCE
Peaches stole it.

TRACEY
That’s not good.

BRUCE
And those payments happen to be due. There are some Guido’s looking for me right now, I’m sure.

TRACEY
Here we go again, same old story—why don’t you pay ‘em off with the rest of Uncle Abe’s $10,000?

BRUCE
Little problem with that…I lost it all at the track.

TRACEY
That’s it—I’m done! I’m not going down with you again. Let me out of this truck!

A series of farm animals begins crossing the road, causing BRUCE to swerve violently.

TRACEY
Watch out for that chicken!

BRUCE
Why’d that damn chicken cross the road?!

TRACEY
Watch out for that ass!

BRUCE
What’s going on?

TRACEY
Let me out of this truck!

BRUCE swerves to miss a hog standing in the middle of the road and slows to a stop. As TRACEY opens the door, a huge buck runs into the truck, disabling the vehicle. Steam pours from the hood. TRACEY starts walking down the road as BRUCE grabs the gear and follows him.

BRUCE
Come on, little brother, one more time. We’re almost there. No cheating—we can pull this off!

TRACEY
Leave me alone, Bruce.

88 EXT FARMERS MARKET — DAY

PEACHES, still in her tattered wedding dress, fondles melons at the Farmers Market, drawing stares and whispers. FELDMAN and GUY stand beside GINA MAE’s fish taco truck, eating again.

FELDMAN
Ain’t nobody can make a fish taco like you can, Gina Mae.

GINA MAE
Boys—don’t look now, but there’s Peaches. I told y’all not to look! Come back, you’re gonna spook her!

GUY
Peaches!

PEACHES heaves a melon at her pursuers, grabs a handful of oranges and takes off. GUY and FELDMAN follow, knocking over strollers, acoustic musicians, and old ladies with lap dogs. Peaches drives off in the Cobra, hurling oranges in her wake.

89 EXT FAR SIDE OF WHISKEY LAKE — DAY

Brothers sit on side of the road.

BRUCE
Come on, the lake’s just over that hill—we can call the Warden, catch this stripper, and then find the car.

TRACEY gapes in astonishment as a white monster truck pulls up, accompanied by angelic music and a celestial aura of light. Driver’s window rolls down and WILLIE, dressed all in white, calls to the brothers.

WILLIE
Going fishing?

TRACEY
Who are you?

WILLIE
I’m a fisher of men.

BRUCE
We don’t go for that—we’re not on that team.

WILLIE
I’m here for your salvation.

TRACEY
Did Uncle Abraham send you?

WILLIE
Sure he did. I work in mysterious ways.

BRUCE
Can you help us catch a stripper, fast?

WILLIE
“And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Yes, my son, get in, I can help you.

90 INT RV — DAY

MR. MCCRACKEN
All this driving’s got my hemorrhoids flaring up!

MRS. MCCRACKEN
You’re always whining about something.

MR. MCCRACKEN
Speaking of, tonight I’m leaving you at home while I take the Cobra –I’ll be wining and dining at the Club.

MRS. MCCRACKEN
At least I’ll get a night of peace! You love that car more than you love me!

MR. MCCRACKEN
You may be right, Mrs. McCracken.

The RV passes a sign that reads “Whiskey Lake, 30 miles.”

91 EXT CITY STREET — DAY

GUY pulls his motorcycle beside FELDMAN’s truck.

GUY
I lost her. Do you see any sign of her?

FELDMAN
No—wait! There’s an orange, follow me!

92 EXT WILLIE’S BOAT — DAY

TRACEY
What’s the plan?

WILLIE
Drop anchor, I’ll get my gear.

BRUCE
Here’s a pole, Tracey’s got the tacklebox.

WILLIE
Fine—hand me that duffel bag first. We’re gonna feed the multitudes.

TRACEY (whispers)
Bruce—this guy’s not right.

BRUCE
He’s nuttier than a squirrel turd.

WILLIE whips out a stick of dynamite.

TRACEY
What are you doing!?

WILLIE pantomimes a fishing pole with the dynamite.

WILLIE
Did you expect me to show you how to flick and dip? Cast your net wide boys!

WILLIE lights the dynamite.

BRUCE
NOOOO!

WILLIE hurls the stick of dynamite.

CUT TO: stock images of atomic blasts.

93 EXT SHORE OF WHISKEY LAKE — DAY

The brothers stagger along a trail beside the lake, burnt and smoking. In the background the boat can be seen in the treetops.

TRACEY
What happened? Where’d he go?

BRUCE
Was he even real?

TRACEY
That dynamite was real.

The brothers come upon two boys fishing.

BOY
Hey mister, you wanna give it a try?

BRUCE, in a daze, casts. A large striper strikes the lure.

BRUCE
Get the net!

TRACEY
I got it, I got it!

BOY
You got ‘im, mister!

TRACEY
Not too hard, don’t break the line!

BRUCE
I got him, get the net!

TRACEY awkwardly nets fish.

BOYS
It’s got a tag! Look, it’s tagged!

WARDEN (VOICE OVER)
I can’t believe y’all did it.

WARDEN appears and snaps photo of an awestruck BRUCE holding up the fish.

TRACEY
How’d you find us?

WARDEN
I just followed the explosions and smoke.

BOY
Look, mister! It’s the $10,000 prize fish!

TRACEY
Warden–what do you mean, we did it?

WARDEN
You did it, boys. Your uncle’s will actually had only one stipulation: that you catch a fish and enjoy it.

BRUCE
Brother we’re rich!

TRACEY [handing the fish to the kids]
Boys, y’all split that prize money down the middle.

BRUCE
Slow down, Tracey.

TRACEY
It’s the right thing to do—give these boys a head start in life.

BRUCE hands the boys a smoldering business card.

BRUCE
All right. But you boys come talk to me at Simpson Enterprises if you want to double your money. Warden, get a picture of their winning catch!

TRACEY
You save that money, now.

WARDEN takes a photo of BOYS holding fish as the brothers steal WARDEN’s truck and take off down the road.

BRUCE
We got to take care of something Warden—meet you later at Arman & Leggett’s!

94 EXT CITY STREETS — DAY

GUY (followed by FELDMAN) pursues PEACHES, motorcycle weaving in traffic. GUY pulls alongside the moving Cobra.

PEACHES
Leave me alone!

GUY
Listen to me, Honey, if I don’t get this car back to Mr. Simpson, I’m a dead man!

PEACHES
Well whyn’t you say so? Which way is it?

GUY
When you get to the fork in the road, take the left.

GUY drops back and follows Cobra.

95 INT FELDMAN’S TRUCK — DAY

FELDMAN (on phone)
We got her headed the long way to the office—I’m taking the wraparound, you cut her off at the gate.

INTERCUT to INT GINA MAE’S FISH TACO TRUCK — DAY

GINA MAE
I’ll beat her there from the south—where’s Bruce and Tracey?

FELDMAN
I don’t know. Over and out!

96 INT WARDEN’S TRUCK — DAY

TRACEY
Slow down Bruce!

BRUCE
We got to make up some time. Hold on!

97 INT RV — DAY

While the MCCRACKENS argue, the Cobra, followed by the motorcycle and the truck, blow past at a high rate of speed, unnoticed.

MR. MCCRACKEN
Just tell me left or right at the V! Use your phone, look up Simpson Enterprises.

MRS. MCCRACKEN
This map app don’t make no sense—but I remember, just go right.

MR. MCRACKEN
Simpson better be there.

98 EXT FORK IN THE ROAD — DAY

The convoy approaches the fork in the road. PEACHES arrives and turns right, followed by Guy. FELDMAN takes the (shortcut) left.

CUT TO VEHICLES

PEACHES
Can’t tell ME what to do!

GUY
Hah, I knew it.

FELDMAN
We got her now.

99 INT WARDEN’S TRUCK — DAY

TRACEY
We’re not gonna make it!

BRUCE
We’re almost there.

100 INT MCCRACKEN RV — DAY

MRS. MCCRACKEN
This is it, turn right!

MR. MCCRACKEN
Now was that so hard?

101 EXT CITY STREET — DAY

PEACHES and GUY race toward Simpson Enterprises’ front gate. GINA MAE blocks the street, sending PEACHES up the drive and through the gate. GINA MAE blocks her in with the fish taco truck. GUY and FELDMAN pull up, blocking the other side of the circular drive.

102 EXT SIMPSON ENTERPRISES — DAY

PEACHES
How’d you know I’d turn right instead of left?

GUYS
‘Cause I’m your soul-fate.

They embrace. BRUCE and TRACEY screech to a halt.

BRUCE
Feldman, get that Cobra in the shed and give ‘er a quick spit-shine.

FELDMAN
Right, Chief!

MCCRACKENS park behind the taco truck and make their way past GUY and PEACHES.

GUY
What about that musician?

PEACHES
He didn’t mean nothing—I couldn’t look at that man-bun another minute.

MR. MCCRACKEN
What the hell is going on around here? Simpson!

GINA MAE
Well, hello there. My name’s Gina Mae, what’s yours?

MRS. MCCRACKEN
Goodness gracious!

GINA MAE
Goodness ain’t got nothing to do with it, honey.

TRACEY walks up and greets the MCCRACKENS.

TRACEY
I understand y’all just came back from your second honeymoon—how long y’all been together?

MR. MCCRACKEN
Thirty years, as of yesterday.

MRS. MCCRACKEN
Look at that cute young couple riding off on that motorcycle, they ` seem so happy. Why can’t we be like that, hon?

MR. MCCRACKEN
We can celebrate as soon as we get the Cobra. Simpson!

BRUCE
How are my favorite honeymooners, the McCrackens?

MR. MCCRACKEN
Got no time for chatting. Where’s my Cobra?

BRUCE
Here it comes right now, sir.

FELDMAN pulls around with the shiny Cobra. He opens the door and an orange rolls out. He pockets it.

MR. MCCRACKEN
Get in, honey! We can still make the early bird special at the Club.

MR. MCCRACKEN holds door open for his wife and MRS. MCCRACKEN elbows GINA MAE out of the way.

GINA MAE
Y’all be good—and if you can’t be good, be good at it!

Cobra drives off. The brothers and FELDMAN and GINA MAE stare after it, FELDMAN peels and eats the orange. BRUCE puts his arm across TRACEY’s shoulders.

BRUCE
I told you to trust me. We did it.

TRACEY
It’s the Simpson Blood.

DENOUEMENT:

103 INTERIOR SPORTS BAR — NIGHT

Wild launch party at TRACEY’s new place: Simpsons On the Lake, is in full swing. All the characters are dancing.

Chapter 9: Heroes and Villains

RESIZED Cicero, Helen, John

There was a flying ace, a fighter pilot who left Arkansas County to travel the world—Frank Tinker. He was a real-life war hero, a buddy of Dad’s. He used to buzz us out in the fields, zooming loud and low over the farm in his single engine Jenny, laughing. We heard he met a sad fate in a Little Rock hotel—shot and killed over a jealous woman. He was buried in DeWitt with “¿Quien Sabe?” (“Who knows?”) engraved on his tombstone. Folks tended to shy away from scandal, so his name went unspoken.

There was also in St. Charles during this time a villain whose name was on everyone’s lips. From the church sanctuary to the docks, tales of his villainy spread until an image formed in my mind like some graven idol of the Old Testament. He was known as “The Colonel,” said to be rich as Midas and mean as Herod.

LC snickered when I asked which war he fought in. “The Colonel? He got his medals off a Memphis pawnbroker.” LC explained how the old man lived alone ever since his invalid wife up and died of sheer spite; he kept a house in town and a plantation toward Skunk Holler. Over the years so many housekeepers quit on him, he took to writing checks to the Pea Farm, paying large sums to parole poor gals out of prison—and straight into bondage.

“The Colonel rides his tenants hard,” LC said. “Works ‘em ragged. Awhile back, he drilled a well to irrigate his land. Now he charges the small farmers cash on the barrelhead for water.”

I stalked the springtime streets of St. Charles with a sharp eye out for the Colonel, the only dark blot on April. Roaming the soft green woods, my brain set to reeling from misty breezes. At school I daydreamed and at home I turned bitter and sulled up, snapping at Dad. On top of all this, Mudcat was fixing to have her first litter of kittens. What if she were too small? I seethed with indignation.

“You’ve got spring fever,” Dad concluded. He pronounced the cure: a spell of fishing with Uncle Harold. He said I could come home after Mudcat had her kittens—“Harold’s the dang zookeeper, so let him deal. Cool your heels on the River—it’ll do you good.”

But I didn’t want anything to do me good. The heathen in me reared up. First chance I got I snuck away from Uncle Harold’s, scaled the fence back of the Colonel’s townhouse and stole peaches off his trees. Emboldened, I returned with a rock the following night and broke his basement window. LC confronted me after school: “Are you gonna tell me what’s going on, or do I have to throw you?” I bowed up on him, but as he was still a head taller than me, I thought better and dropped my fists.

“You’re the one took out the Colonel’s winder, ain’t ya?” he said. “I best keep you in my sight, Cole Younger!”
We came upon John standing by the log chute at River Bend. The Mary Woods churned our way, red paddlewheel shining in the distance. She was coming to pick up a tow—a bunch of floating logs all chained together. It was fun to watch the giant tree trunks plunge down the chute into the River, sending spray sky-high. Cypress logs were already piled at the head of the chute and a team of draft horses appeared, shiny with sweat, pulling a load of hickory. Mr. Williams walked alongside.

43 Mary Woods in motion

“Hey Mr. Williams,” called LC. “How’s the molasses business?”

“Like they say—sweet,” he replied. I realized Mr. Williams was a woodsman by trade and as he talked timber with LC and John, up strode the company man.

“Get that hickory down the chute, boy!” barked the foreman. At the sound of a Yankee accent, the four of us turned to study the foreman’s pink face, not saying a word. “We got to chain the hickory to the cypress first,” began Mr. Williams, but the foreman interrupted with an ugly oath. Mr. Williams shrugged and walked back to the wagon team.

“You see that?” John asked LC, who nodded. “What happened?” I said. “Watch,” they muttered.

The men used iron pikes to move the bare hickory trunks, straining and grunting. As the logs thundered down the chute, splashing into deep water, I waited for them to shoot back up like big corks. But nothing happened—the logs just sank. John and LC hooted with laughter as the Yankee threw his hat to the ground, cussing.

“I done told you we had to hook ‘em to cypress to float ‘em,” Mr. Williams sang out as LC and John doubled over, laughing until tears ran down their cheeks. Hickory, being a dense and heavy grain, doesn’t float easily. The day’s work was lost. The foreman caught my eye. “Damn River Rats,” he snarled, so I snatched up a hickory nut and beaned him on the temple. “Run!” yelled John and the three of us hotfooted it all the way to Uncle Harold’s houseboat. “You looked like David and Goliath back yonder,” gasped LC.

Somehow my Uncle knew all about the broken window. “Brent’s feeling his oats, all right,” he sighed. “Have y’all been to see Mother Carey? She cleared up my plantar’s wart–had me bind a slice of potato to the sole of my foot–worked like a charm.” At this, my companions grabbed ahold of my arms and ordered me to march. We left Uncle Harold standing by the stage plank, chuckling, and turned past the cold spring, following the River. After much pleading on my part they finally let go. “Who the Hell is Mother Carey?” I demanded, to no avail. “You got some tobacco?” LC asked and John nodded. “What’s going ON?” I hollered.

073 Mr. Tony Elmer's houseboat on land

The path ended in a clearing with a flight of stone steps leading to the water, where a houseboat floated atop cypress logs. Its pitched roof was like a lean-to, and in the doorway stood a little old woman. The minute her glittering dark eyes fell on me I got a rigor—a shiver that rippled from head to toe. The old lady lifted her pipe. “What’s a matter there?” she cackled. “A rabbit run over your grave?”

John solemnly handed his tobacco pouch to Mother Carey and we went inside. She rocked slowly in a wicker chair as we sat cross-legged on the floor and my case was presented: “He’s moonstruck bad—he’s off his feed.” In the dim light I could see the walls were papered in newsprint. Bundles of sweet-smelling herbs dangled from the rafters. When she turned and asked, “What’s your question?” I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.

“Why’s the Colonel alive and my Momma’s dead?” For answer, Mother Carey lit her pipe. The smoke drifted toward the three of us, and things shifted somehow. It was like we sort of sank into the floor—I can’t explain. “Don’t you worry about the Colonel,” her raspy voice echoed overhead. “Y’all be dancing on his grave before the next full moon. And don’t worry about your momma either—you gots her eyes.” The voice fell silent. As soon as we could lift our heads, we crawled out the door on hands and knees. The sunshine revived us and we stumbled back to Harold’s place lost in wonderment.

A week went by and nothing happened except that Mudcat had three kittens. I cheered up some; Bo was happiest of all, as though he was their dad. The Dupslaff kids wanted the two calico ones, but I secretly hoped we could keep the third kitten, a gray tabby. I was walking to LC’s house, musing about the kittens, when I noticed someone galloping up the road—The Colonel! Before I could look around for a good rock to chunk, he passed by in a cloud of dust, flogging his bay mare like a madman. It made me so angry I ran home to the houseboat, not wanting to see anybody, not even LC.

“It’s good you got here when you did,” Uncle Harold said. The weather had turned. We herded the animals inside minutes before a cloudburst ushered in days of rain. The houseboat rose in the water like an Ark as the two of us holed up, playing cards and petting cats. After the rain stopped, we didn’t see Dad for a couple more days and I fretted—but as soon as the floods receded, he came bringing news: the Colonel was dead.

“Word is he was checking fences at the plantation when the rain spooked his horse,” said Dad. “The horse took off into the swamp. Rolled over on him—they say he drowned and got crushed, too.” Uncle Harold observed that “if anybody deserved to die twice’t, it were the Colonel.”

I was glad to get back to our farm, but I still had something to do. I set out for the Saint Charles cemetery, resolved to dance on the Colonel’s grave. To my surprise, there was a family gathered around the big white marble monument (the Colonel had special ordered it from Little Rock years before). One of the people turned—it was Mattie Lively, my old schoolmate from Skunk Holler. I barely recognized her, she was grown so tall. She smiled and said, “Why, Brent Granberry!”

Turns out, the Colonel’s name was Harvey Walburton Lively—Mattie’s grandfather. He’d quarreled with his only son, banishing him years ago. But since nobody could find a will, the inheritance fell to Mattie’s dad. The farm was to be leased out and Mattie was coming to live in the townhouse. I offered to fix a certain window and as we talked, the old bitterness inside melted clean away. “I missed you, Mattie,” I said, and it was true. “Hey—want a kitten?”

Things shifted after that, in a good way. Cured of spring fever, I looked forward to the sun coming up. LC and I laughed at how folks in Arkansas County said the Colonel’s grave was the most fertile plot in the Saint Charles cemetery. Tall white iris grew thick as weeds against his marble marker, adorned year-round with yellow stains.

3 Steamboat St. Charles

Chapter 8: Snow on the Cedar

Snow on the Cedar

RESIZED Cicero, Helen, John

The Reunion marks the beginning of the Holidays, with Thanksgiving and Christmas and the New Year just around the corner. Camp Doughboy near DeWitt draws families from across Arkansas County, but Dad could remember the old Reunion ground, Camp Fagan, on the lower White River. Camp Fagan was named after a Confederate general; you can still dig up a musket ball on the riverbank there—even cannon balls. That part of the River was known as Indian Bay until a Civil War battle filled the water with dying soldiers and horses. Afterward folks renamed it Stinking Bay.

I rode with the Browns again and before we saw Camp Doughboy through the trees we could hear the music. Anybody carrying an instrument gets in the Reunion for free. There’s a merry-go-round with wooden horses and a calliope and even a magic lantern show. At dusk, folks file in the big tent to sit on benches, waiting for dark. Then they light up the lantern that projects pictures—the wonders of the world flicker across the canvas. My favorites were the Taj Mahal, Sitting Bull, the Sphinx and Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls made me seasick, it looked so real—or maybe it was just too many candy apples and rides on the merry-go-round.

“Altha Ray makes the finest fried chicken,” sighed LC, sprawled beside the fire. “I’m fuller’n a tick,” John groaned. We were camped by the River, away from the main campgrounds, and Wolf stood guard. “Tonight’s Halloween,” LC mused. “Did I ever tell y’all about the ghost up at the Icehouse?” The Icehouse at Saint Charles set up on a hill like some gray skull made of cypress instead of bone, but it wasn’t haunted. “I don’t want to hear your fish stories,” I challenged. “I seen a real ghost—it shook my hand!”

4 Ice House St. Charles

John whistled. “Still waters run deep. You don’t talk much, but when you do it’s a doozy!” We drew up in a circle by the fire and I told them all about meeting Helen Spence in the graveyard and how she saved me from the storm. “Here’s the quill my Uncle made,” I said, pulling the string necklace from inside my shirt. “If I blew this whistle—right now—would it wake the dead? Do y’all think Helen would come?”

“Do it!” hollered LC. But John shook his head. “Brent, you know you can’t. It ain’t right to trouble an unquiet spirit. Helen’s an unquiet spirit.”

I put the whistle back inside my shirt as LC fumed. “Well I wanna see ‘er! Y’all are scaredy-cats!” John stared into the fire. “LC, you talk like a drylander! Were you there when we broke her outta that damned funeral home in DeWitt? Where they had her dead body set up in the winder like Bonnie Parker? No. It was us River folk went and got her and brought her home to Saint Charles. Your Uncle was with us, Brent.”

“That was the first time I ever saw my momma cry,” LC said. “I miss Helen. You know where to find her grave?”

“I oughta know—I helped dig it,” John replied. “We planted a cedar tree to mark it. Next to where Cicero is buried, back in the potter’s field. The night we buried her, the moon was so bright it give me freckles.”

34 Graveyard Cedar and Cicero Marker

We agreed to visit Helen’s cedar tree after the Reunion was over, but there came a hard freeze. “Looks like the persimmon seeds predicted right,” Uncle Harold said, stoking the fire. “Back when your dad was a boy, there was a winter so cold it froze the River—folks went ice-skating!” Dad was toughing it out at the farm—he had closed up the house and was sleeping in the barn with the animals. In the middle of the night I woke to a strange sound, so loud it drowned out Uncle Harold’s snoring. Bundled in a wool blanket, I crept through the dark houseboat and went to open the door—it was stuck. I pried it open a crack, put my head out and felt something like needles on my face—an ice storm!

We were iced in all right. For the next few days we holed up, listening to trees exploding outside. My nerves were shot from worrying if the ice storm would fell Helen’s tree. Uncle Harold wore me down asking “Why so blue?” When I explained the reason, he nodded sympathetically. “Please—tell me about Helen Spence,” I asked, and he stoked the fire and began:

39 Helen and Edie

“They called her the Swamp Angel, but she’s just a little River girl. She could shoot straighter’n a man, and sew and tat lace finer than any dry-lander lady. She lived by a code; the code of River Justice. The River gets its revenge. She shot the man who killed her daddy; shot him four times in such a tight pattern you could put a hat over it.”

“At the trial? In the courthouse?”

“You ain’t just a wolfin’. Folks were jumping out the courthouse winders to get away. The judge hid under his desk. She had a pearl-handled lady’s pistol tucked into a fur muff she wore—it was cold that day, like now. After she shot that no-good, she handed over the gun to LC’s daddy. The judge never should have sent her to the Pea Farm, because she were from the River. She kept escaping—always headed back to the River though, so they always caught her. One escape she planned for months. They had took her off the field crew and put her to work in the prison laundry. She saved up a bunch of cloth napkins—the red and white ones.”

“Gingham?”

“Yes, gingham-checked napkins,” Uncle Harold continued. “She saved ‘em and sewed ‘em into the lining of her prison dress. And when the mean ol’ prison matron, Miz Brockman, sent the gals up to Memphis and the bus stopped off at the station, what do you think Helen did? She went to the ladies room, turned her dress inside out, and waltzed off! But like I say, they always caught up to her, and give ‘er ten lashes with the blacksnake—a leather strop.” When I asked why Miz Brockman bused the prisoners to Memphis, Uncle Harold hesitated. “They done a lot of bad things back then—I’ll tell you another time. Get on to bed.”

I woke burning with fever and poor Uncle Harold didn’t know what to do. As a result, he tried out all his home remedies on me: A knife under my cot “to cut the pain,” doses of turpentine “to clean me out” and hot oatmeal and onion plasters on my chest “to draw up the bad stuff.” When he came at me with yet another steaming cup of godawful stewed leaves he called “senny,” I begged for mercy. “That stuff puts me in the outhouse—it’s too dang cold out there,” I wailed. As a compromise, he brewed a strong pot of coffee and poured the last of his “special reserve” into the pot. After a few cups, we both felt stronger.

I lost track of time, but one morning brought a moist breeze that started things to thawing. I felt strong enough to go outside and from the top of the stage plank, I watched chunks of blueish ice float past the wet black tree trunks. The snow was so bright it hurt my eyes. I went back inside the houseboat, resolved to walk to the cemetery the next day no matter what. I would go alone, since I didn’t have the wind in me to walk to LC or John’s place and fetch ‘em.

I was sure I could find the right tree—when Uncle Harold described it, I recognized the place I met Helen. I went slowly, breathing hard, as the drip and crack of melting ice sounded through the woods. Fallen trees blocked the road; it looked like the cedars got hit bad—split from the top down, branches sheathed in gray-green ice. At the cemetery entrance, I leaned against a pillar, staring over the sea of white drifts and broken limbs. How would I find Helen’s tree? I looked down to see a line of rabbit tracks leading off among the headstones, so I followed them. The tracks led to the back corner of the graveyard and there stood Helen’s cedar tree, untouched by the ice storm.

I blew softly on the quill and waited. “Helen,” I whispered. “Are you there?” When nothing happened I leaned my head against the slender trunk; I was all give out. The sun came blazing from behind a cloud, and through my tears the ice sparkled like diamonds, little rainbows everywhere. By my foot, a bright red droplet appeared on the melting snow—it was red as blood. I knelt down and brushed away the snow to find a tiny patch of wild strawberries. What in the world—berries in the dead of winter!

“Brent? Son, are you there?” Dad’s voice called from a distance. I answered and soon he was standing beside me. “So this is her tree,” he said. He had driven to Uncle Harold’s to fetch me and found me gone. “Son, let’s go home—you ain’t well yet.” I took my quill necklace and tied it around the tree trunk, and Dad helped me to the truck.

That spring brought the best strawberry crop in years. At Eastertide, Dad and I went and planted dahlias at Momma’s grave. I didn’t return to the Saint Charles cemetery for a while, but LC used to say that whenever the dogwoods were in bloom and a breeze came off the River just so, the little quill gave a whistle, a pan-pipe call, and Helen’s laughter drifted like distant music through the trees.

27 White River St. Charles 2011

Chapter Seven: Sweet as Molasses

resized harvest

Autumn on the River is busy season. There’s the Reunion at the end of October, but before that comes the sorghum harvest and molasses-making. I was itching to see my first molasses-cooking party—LC said it lasts for days, with music and circle dances and a big spread. School lets out early, perking folks up.

Dad liked to broke his back cutting the 10-foot stalks, topped with tassels that have to be sawn off by hand. From sunup to sundown we piled green cane onto the hay wagon, falling asleep as soon as supper was over. My hands blistered and I got behind on the dishwashing—when we ran out of clean pots and pans Dad kept going. He switched to the Dutch oven and built a fire out in the yard.

One evening we were tucking in to a mess of stew when LC and Wolf showed up. After dinner, we lounged on the porch. The moon shone through the pines as LC cleared his throat. “Mr. Granberry, can Brent ride with us to the molasses-makin’? We got room in our buckboard and he can camp with John and me.” I watched Dad, holding my breath. He grinned. “That’ll work. I’ll be in Uncle Harold’s tent. Just follow the snoring.”

The next few days were a blur. Between the nip in the air and the colors in the leaves, I went around dazzled, daydreaming. LC talked about molasses nonstop; he was sharpening his sweet tooth. “The best barbecue sauce has sorghum in it. The pit’s already dug at the Williams’ place—they’re probably scalding the hog now. Cracklings are my favorite,” he rambled as we walked home from school. John was already gone ahead up the River. “He’s pitching camp by the River, away from the big house,” LC said, “since Wolf is coming to guard the camp.”

“Guard it from what?” I asked. LC didn’t answer until we came to the fork in the road. As he and Wolf turned off for home, he hollered, “Ghosts, that’s what! Guard it from ghosts!” I stared until they were out of sight and a dust devil sprang up in the empty dirt. My scalp prickled and I ran the rest of the way home.

resized house

That night I lay awake, listening for Dad’s snore—the house was too quiet. “Dad? Is the Williams place haunted? LC says its haunted.” The Williams homestead, for years the site of the molasses-making, had fields and orchards and a big stone wishing well. Two maiden aunts and their elderly brother lived in the farmhouse in peace and quiet, except for the yearly wingding. LC called it “sorghum philanthropy.”

“He’s just rattlin’ your cage, son—go to sleep.” It’s true, LC held to uncertain lore, as when he swore if a Model A were parked with the engine running, the tires would melt. He’d cross his heart while describing in detail a hoop snake, gulley cat or snipe. LC got me to believe knotholes on trees were doors to beehives—for months I knocked on every knothole I saw. Maybe ghosts are uncertain lore.

When school let out we ran yelling down the steps. At the Brown’s we climbed into the loaded buckboard, like a big shoebox on wheels, with Mr. and Mrs. Brown up front guiding the draft horses. LC’s older brother Henry followed on horseback and Wolf stalked beside. Being in high spirits, we took turns singing—that is, the Browns sang “This Old White Mule of Mine,” followed by a round:

“I’m going to leave ol’ Texas now, they’ve got no use for the longhorn cow
They’ve plowed and fenced my cattle range, and the people there are all so strange…”

More wagons entered the road, winding past hedgerows of purple sumac and goldenrod. Mrs. Brown began “Auld Lang Syne,” and a lump came into my throat—Momma used to sing that. On reflex, I looked to the heavens that were bluer than a bird egg and it was like a vision dropped from the sky, as if Momma whispered in my ear: Remember, Poppy River makes molasses candy, the best molasses candy in Arkansas County. The River Sisters—surely they’d be there! I resolved to scour the Williams place for any sign of them.

Group - men standing - women seated on ground

The wagon topped a rise and the air hummed with sudden laughter and conversation, jangling harnesses, rumbling engines. Distant smoke spiraled from the boiling molasses as folks gathered in oak and pecan groves, unfolding card tables and tents. A group of men were setting up a stage next to the muscadine arbor and kids played crack-the-whip, snaking in a blur until the whip snapped, sending the small ones rolling in the grass. LC pointed to where a mule trod a circle, hitched to a long pole turning the grindstone. “First we try the raw cane juice,” he said. “But just a sip—you don’t want to spend the weekend in the outhouse.”

Escaping the wagon, we passed some folks working an apple press and a girl held out a cup. “Want some live-apple juice? Say—is that a timber wolf?” With a nod to the girl, LC grabbed my arm and steered toward the settling vat. “First things first,” he repeated. LC was right—a little of that foamy, sappy juice was plenty—it tasted sharp as the color green. We took off toward the river.

John’s shell boat was tied to the bank and the camp looked a sight. A raggedy flag (red silk bloomers, according to LC) flapped atop the tent pole and from trees hung all manner of gear: spyglass, drinking gourd, railroad lantern. A circle of stones marked the fire pit, next to which John lay with his hat over his eyes. LC whispered to Wolf, who broke into a piercing howl. Scrambling to his feet, John cussed us for being late. I stared off through the trees while he argued with LC about whether to play horseshoes or go find the musicians. “You’re mighty quiet,” said LC. “What’s eating you?”

I announced my mission: to find three sisters, name of River. Apparently, the girls were as legendary in St. Charles as in Skunk Holler—LC and John gawked as though I’d sprouted a second head. “The River Sisters ain’t been seen in a good while,” LC began, but John shouted him down, betting us a nickel they were close by right this minute. After more arguing, we agreed to fan out on a search and meet up in an hour. “Wolf, stand guard,” LC called.

resized cropped reunion

I plunged into the crowd and caught up to a buffet line, asking every few paces if anybody had seen the River Sisters. People seemed startled, but in the next breath they’d be talking a streak—everybody had a story about the River Sisters. Begging pardon, I excused myself and ran to the nearest card table, asking some poker players if they’d seen the River Sisters. That was the end of their hand, as each fellow folded his cards and talked over the other, vying to praise the girls. I gave up on the poker players and hurried to find the musicians.

The boys were tuning their guitars behind a shed, passing a jug. “Have y’all seen the River Sisters?” I panted. “Speak up, kid—don’t be a mush-mouth,” said the washboard player. When I repeated the question, they welcomed me warmly. “Sit down—have a nip of this blueberry wine.” Dad gave me some blueberry wine once when I had the croup, so I took a swig. The warming potion spread like electricity down my middle as the musicians debated over which songs to play for the River Sisters, ignoring my presence. This wasn’t working as planned, so I went in search of LC.

I found him at the Flying Jenny, a sort of giant seesaw for brave people. “They’re here all right,” LC said excitedly as John pushed through the multitude, hollering, “They’re here!” We spotted a table by the barbecue pit and compared notes over messy helpings of barbecue. It was like I thought: nobody had seen the River Sisters, but everybody was sure they were here. “Wonder who started that rumor?” LC hooted. Bonfires flared in the distance as the musicians took the stage, dedicating the song to “the sweetest gals in Arkansas, the River Sisters.” The Cajun reel went round and round: “When we didn’t have no crawfish, we didn’t eat no crawfish,” as couples danced under a full moon.

resized dancing couple

The rest of the weekend flew by. I won a penny jacknife pitching horseshoes, and Dad and Uncle Harold jarred up 30 crates of fine amber syrup—enough to pay bills. Back home, I slept like a log. But Dad woke me before dawn. “I want to fetch a premium price for our first batch—what do you think?” he said, raising the lantern. Mason jars of sorghum molasses covered the kitchen floor, table and counter. They all bore brown paper labels: “Granberry’s Hainted Molasses.” Dad had stayed up all night making the labels and I didn’t have the heart to tell him he misspelled “haunted.” Turns out, it didn’t even matter—folks bought it in droves, said it was the best they’d had, and we were in tall cotton for a good while.

Chapter Six: Run for the Roses

river gathering (1024x668)

Back at the “dirt farm in Van” as Dad called it, work was plentiful. After bending a dozen nails and breaking a hoe, I was put in charge of the chickens and pond. “Just bring in some eggs and a few catfish or bream now and then,” Dad pleaded.

His plan centered on a crop of fast-growing sorghum. We were going to turn it into molasses at the end of the season. Dad was already tallying jars to sell to the general store at nearby Ethel and at Ballard’s Mercantile. He had acquired a mule, so we planted a big garden too. I got used to eating greens, baby taters and double-yolker omelets. Most days I found time to sneak off and see what LC was up to.

The Brown farm, a much larger piece of land than ours, was located between Van and Ethel. One midsummer afternoon I met LC coming down the dusty road. Recognizing me from a distance, he plunked down in the shade and waited. “There’s a horse race today at the big cypress,” he hollered when I was still a ways off, a revelation that set me running.

I never saw a real horse race. Whenever Aunt Eula would go on about the glory days of Oaklawn Park over in Hot Springs, Momma called it scandalous. As we walked, LC described the scene: after taking off from the big cypress, the horsemen would gallop over a mile to the general store in Ethel where the winner got a cold Coca-Cola and folks collected their bets. Part of the track went through the woods. “My uncle was on the crew that built this road,” said LC. “When they got to the cypress tree, there wasn’t a saw blade big enough to cut it, so they built the road to Ethel around it.”

072 historic NWR pic man and cypress

We veered off to the bottoms as shouts of laughter and the jingle of harnesses sounded ahead. Soon we entered a cypress grove containing more drylanders and horseflesh than I had ever seen gathered in one place. At the center of the hubbub, the giant tree rose up like a mountain, with knees 10 feet tall! I stared up at the faraway treetop, where an eagle’s nest wedged between branches. “During rainy years it takes a canoe to get here,” LC observed. “A dry spell like this is good racing weather.”

Six tall farm boys swung into saddles. I like Palominos; there was a fine one prancing about, also some chestnut quarterhorses and a paint pony. Men young and old ranged around swapping bets. LC stood in conversation with an older boy named John, whose family kept a houseboat downriver from Uncle Harold. I knew John by reputation as one of the best mussel-shellers in St Charles; despite being small of stature he could shoulder a helmet and stay under water longer than anybody. Suddenly the crowd grew quiet and a man hollered something, lifting his pistol skyward. A shot rang out and the horses broke away in a cloud of dust and yelling.

Some folks ran to the road and jumped in automobiles; a few followed on horseback or mule. By the time John, LC and I made it to Ethel on foot, the race was over and one of the Jenkins boys had won on the paint pony. All the girls from school were there, milling around and gushing over the horses and the Jenkins boys. Some of the girls had made a garland of roses for the winner. John and LC rolled their eyes at the spectacle. “Let’s go fishing,” John said, tearing up his slip. “I’d rather bet on something I can eat than a horse race anyhow.”

IMG_1408 (1024x775)

The following week there was a revival down on the White River. Despite his aversion to indoor churchgoing, Uncle Harold never missed a chance to take Altha Ray to the brush arbor. I tried to get Dad to come, but he just shook his head. “God don’t want me and Hell’s already full,” he declared. He insisted I wash behind my ears and put on a clean shirt, muttering, “Your momma always wanted to see you baptized.” I had no such plans; I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Every summer on the River, folks cut lengths of cane and willow branches to fashion a rectangular open-air structure. Then they made a brush arbor, roofing the frame with branches while girls braided lengths of flower-vines and wrapped them around the posts. Honeysuckle, virgin’s bower and maypops dangled everywhere, heady with perfume, all within a stone’s throw of the River. Rows of benches were set up and lanterns hung. Preacher Burton surveyed the scene with satisfaction. He’d come down from Skunk Holler by way of Possum Waller to baptize the faithful and eat catfish and barbecue.

edited baptism

passion

I rode with LC’s family to St. Charles (Wolf stayed behind, consigned to the barn). The buckboard wagon joined a line of others as we neared the River. “I hear the Jenkins boys are up to something,” LC said. “We’d better keep an eye out.” His dad pulled the buckboard into the shade and we ran to find John, who had already heard the rumor about the Jenkins boys. Plenty of families were arriving as the sun rose higher. At every turn, groups of giddy mothers showed off their new babies, exclaiming over each other.

“Let’s get away from this hen party,” muttered John. We took a bench in the back of the brush arbor but saw no sign of the Jenkins boys. “Looks like they’re planning a surprise attack,” LC said as John nodded gravely. I had only a vague notion of the Jenkins boys; like John, they were already past 9th grade and out of school. Beside the winner of the horse race, there were several more just like him, big and boisterous and always into something. “The Jenkinses are the best pranksters in Arkansas County,” LC remarked in admiration. Uncle Harold and Altha Ray came over to greet us and the seats began filling up as Preacher Burton stepped to the fore.

There were some farm-related prayers for the crops to increase and good weather to continue; beyond that I got lost in daydreams, drowsy from the heat. After a break for a few baptisms and a picnic lunch, the sermonizing started up again for the duration of the afternoon, punctuated occasionally by hymns. I fidgeted on the hard bench. The babies started fussing too; each time, the mother would get up and take the baby over to where the buckboards were parked in the shade. After tending to the baby, the mother wrapped it and tucked it in the wagon to sleep til the sermon was over. As Preacher Burton droned on, I wished I were asleep on a quilt pallet in a buckboard, too.

Preacher Burton finally ran out of steam around sunset. The contented crowd was headed home when a scream pierced the air. “This ain’t little Jimmy!” a woman shrieked from a nearby wagon. The line of buckboards slowed as a babble of voices arose: “Whose baby have we got?” “Why, this isn’t Opal—it’s Clara’s niece!” Women poured into the road, rushing hysterically from wagon to wagon. “Lord,” LC cried, awestruck. “I hope there ain’t a catfight.” Folks exchanged squalling babies, hollering above the din, “The Jenkins boys!”

The revival went on for days, but I stayed home from then on to work with Dad and avoid any chance at getting baptized. LC showed up one day when we were sitting down to dinner (he seemed to always know when to show up) and as Dad piled ham and biscuits on his plate, he offered up the latest news of the Jenkins boys.

“After a couple days of folks’ babies getting switched around, those drylanders took to checking their babies before they left for home,” LC grinned. He described how the Jenkins boys themselves finally showed up and sat in the back row. No one knew what to expect. At the height of Preacher Burton’s oration, the Jenkins boys began scraping their big old work boots on the ground, crunching the brush arbor’s floor of crushed mussel shells. Preacher Burton merely increased his volume. This ordeal went on for the entire book of Job.

“The next day was the last day of the revival,” LC continued, “Preacher Burton shows up to the pulpit, takes his Bible and sets it down. He pulls out his big pocket watch and puts that down beside. And then he brings out his Schofield pistol, lays it on top of the Bible and says, ‘I come here to preach the word of the Lord. But anybody in back want to make noise, I’ll be happy to send him to Hell!’”

Things quieted down considerably after the revival, and Dad spent the rest of the summer trying to make a farmer out of me. “I don’t know as you’re much of a farmer,” he would sigh. “But at least you’re not a preacher, nor a prankster.”

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Copywright 2016 by Denise White Parkinson

Chapter Five: Summer of the Wolf

13 Sheriff Lem

For the first time in a long while, I looked forward to going to school. Leaving the houseboat early, I walked through the May sunrise with firm resolve: there was a friend waiting on me.

The Dupslaffs knew all about L.C. Brown. “He’s the kid on Big Creek that got the wolf,” they chimed. “It’s got red eyes!” hollered the youngest. They described L.C. in voices tinged with awe. When we came in sight of the schoolyard, there he stood: tall and lanky, with a cowlick of black hair that poked up on one side. “Want to go squirrel hunting after school?” was all he said. I spent the rest of the day watching the hands on the wall clock circling slowly around.

“See? This is where he waited for school to let out.” L.C. pointed at the remains of a rabbit. We stepped further in to the ring of forest bordering the schoolyard. “Wolf!” he called softly. Directly in front of us, a clump of bushes parted and a black timber wolf emerged, staring silently with eyes like glowing coals. “My dad was doing some logging and found him in a tree stump,” said L.C. “He was just a little ball of fur when I got him.”

That afternoon summer really began. The last days of school flew by as L.C. and I took to combing the woods between Big Creek and Tarleton Creek, hunting fox squirrels till the sun got low. I tagged along with him while he checked his traps. Every day he brought home something for the table: a plump red-tailed squirrel or rabbit. Wolf didn’t sound or bark, but he sure could growl. Uncle Harold was glad I had a buddy. “Sheriff Lem’s son is the best shot in Arkansas County,” he observed. “Before L.C.—stands for Lemuel Cressie—was born, his dad rode a one-eyed horse all over Forks LaGrue Bayou. Ol’ Good-Eye; now there was a horse.”

mimosa and water

L.C. had a plan for when school let out: we were going to find the Honey Man. Some folks claimed he lived in a big hollow tree. Others called him the bogey-man and said he lurked in the bottomlands. No kid had ever seen him by day; he traveled by moonlight, hauling his kegs of golden honey to the Mercantile. His wildflower honey was the main ingredient (besides whiskey) for every cough remedy in Arkansas County.

L.C. had a powerful sweet tooth; one time he trapped a black mink and Mr. Ballard paid him $20 for it; first thing he did was buy two whole dollars’ worth of candy. “I got to know what the Honey Man’s comb tastes like,” L.C. told me for the umpteenth time. On the last day of school, he kept his word about sticking up for me. A dry-lander boy tripped me as school let out and I went sprawling in the dirt. “Look at the deaf-mute river rat!” the boy sniggered.

Getting to my feet, I stood there at my usual loss for words. L.C. ambled over and grabbed the kid by the back of his overalls. Swinging him up to eye level, L.C. shook the kid like a rag doll. “He ain’t a deaf-mute,” he growled. “He’s a mind-reader. You best run hide in the outhouse!” The boy scrambled away howling.

We hit the trail, Wolf gliding behind. L.C. cut a pair of sticks to tap the ground for snakes. Coming to a shady spot, he bent some branches and pointed: Quicksand. Skirting the mucky place, we moved deeper into the dim swamp where the cypress knees rise shoulder-high. After a couple hours’ slog, we found a little grove and sat down to share some deer jerky. Leaning against a hickory trunk, I piled up leaves til I was buried to my armpits. Patches of blue sky glowed through the branches.

“Hush,” L.C. said, shaking me from a doze. “You were snoring.” A doe and her fawn bounded past our hidden glade, racing down the trail. They zigzagged into the woods and disappeared. I saw Wolf’s fur bristle in waves down his spine; there came a sound of something tromping through the brush. A figure passed carrying a towsack slung over broad shoulders. A sweat-stained hat hid his face, but his jacket of golden-colored deer leather seemed familiar: the Honey Man!

L.C. motioned and I followed. “Smell that?” L.C. whispered. It was wood smoke. Ahead was a clearing, in the center a cypress shack. From the distance came a mule’s laughing bray. Scooting forward on our bellies, we hunkered behind a shed. A screen door slammed and the Honey Man walked over to a row of wooden boxes by the tree line. His face was brown as a walnut and shiny with sweat—he was grinning! Pulling a drawer from one of the boxes, he strode to the center of the clearing and set the drawer on top of a tree stump. He went back inside the little gray house and shut the door.

“Look at the size of that honeycomb,” L.C. whispered, eyeing the drawer’s glistening contents. Before I could blink, he was gone. Darting across the yard, he grabbed a fistful of honeycomb and we tore through the woods as if the Devil were chasing us. After putting some distance between us and the shack, we stopped to gorge on the sweet gooey honeycomb, like candy from heaven. I was licking my fingers when L.C. said, “You hear something?”

We stood stock-still, straining our ears. A thin whine sounded in the distance and Wolf growled. “Run!” L.C. yelled. We took off with the swarm of bees close behind. They chased us all the way to Big Creek, dive-bombing like crazy. “That’s the last time I take charity from the Honey Man,” L.C. said.

32 Johnson Houseboat

Back on the houseboat, Uncle Harold placed strips of wet brown paper on my bee stings and explained how the Honey Man crossed over from Mississippi a few years’ back. “His name is Sam. Some Mississippi lawmen claim he killed a couple of Cajuns, but it ain’t like Sam done anything this side of the River,” Uncle Harold shrugged. “Those Cajuns prob’ly needed killing.”

Summer played on and the White River replaced the woods as fishing and swimming filled our days. After finishing whatever chores I couldn’t avoid, I met L.C. at Ballard’s Mercantile to make plans and we’d go from there. He had the rest of the $20 he got for the mink pelt, so Saturday afternoon we came to town on a mission to buy a new snap gig. What with a full moon and perfect weather, the plan was to go frog-gigging with Uncle Harold later on.

We were in our usual spot in front of the candy counter when the door jingled. A sudden string of oaths burst forth—we spun around to see Mr. Ballard cocking his shotgun over the counter. “You ain’t buying anything in here, mister, not with your blood money,” Mr. Ballard said. The man slowly raised his hands and backed away without uttering a sound. L.C. glared at the stranger, and when the door closed he leaned down, muttering in my ear, “Go straight home and don’t tell.” He left without buying the snap gig.

Uncle Harold and I were sitting on deck watching the moon rise when Dad drove up to go frog-gigging with us. In the morning he was taking me (and Mudcat, of course) back to Van for the rest of the summer. Dad was set on making a farmer out of me. He came barreling down the stage plank whooping and hollering, and after catching his breath and having a nip, he gave us the story: Driving through St. Charles he spotted half the town milling around the Mercantile. Folks were in an uproar over Frank Martin, the prison trusty who got parole for killing Helen Spence. The murderer had brazenly come into St. Charles only to get run off by Mr. Ballard.

“Frank Martin took the rap for killing her, all right,” said Uncle Harold. “Damned drylander.”

22 Frank Martin

“But that ain’t all,” Dad went on, “They said Martin left town in a hurry and was crossing the bridge at Forks Lagrue when his tire caught a nail and went flat. He got out the car to check the tire and a pack of dogs set on him. Those dogs tore his butt to shreds before he could get back in the car. He drove off on the rim in a shower of sparks. It’s the talk of the town.”

“Well I’ll be,” exclaimed Uncle Harold. “Hopefully it was some mad dogs bit him.” We waited awhile and when L.C. didn’t show, the three of us slipped off in the shell boat. Sitting in front holding the lantern, I watched the moon slip from a cloud as an eerie howl echoed against the bluff. Dad speared fat bullfrogs one by one and slung them in the boat—he didn’t need a fancy snap gig. Uncle Harold lounged in back, manning the paddle between nips and chuckling through the darkness, “Mad dogs, yep, mad dogs. You ain’t just a-wolfin’… you ain’t just a wolfin’.”

Years later, we heard Frank Martin went around bragging he was the one shot the notorious Helen Spence. He walked into Cloud’s grocery near Casscoe to buy a loaf of bread and the lady behind the counter was from the River. She sold him a different loaf, said it cost less and was just as good. Frank Martin went home, ate dinner and never woke up the next morning. Folks always said the River got him.

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Copyright 2016 by Denise White Parkinson

Chapter Four: Back on the Bayou

lagrue bridge

Momma was buried with the baby in her arms at her kin’s plot in Van, a flyspeck in the Delta near St. Charles. Daddy and I went back to Skunk Holler to tend to his affairs. I wasn’t sure what that meant. He spent a lot of time sitting in his undershirt at the kitchen table, staring at piles of documents, chin in hand, and quit going to his job at the mill. When Monday came around and I had to go back to school, I learned right quick how things would be different from here on in.

The kids at Skunk Holler had seen me leave before, and come back to all this. It was a case of mutual bewilderment. They didn’t know what to say and shrank away as if I were contagious. Mattie Lively tried to be nice. She came up and blurted, “Your momma was an angel!” but it bothered me. I remembered something Daddy used to say whenever Momma nagged him about going to church.

“She’s no angel,” I bawled at poor Mattie. “She’s a feisty hellcat with a scratchy tongue!”

Asian portrait June 2 1909

I took to skipping school and when Dad found out, he didn’t have the heart to whup me. The rats’ nest of documents on the kitchen table was growing more coffee-stained and crumpled by the day, so when Dad was napping, I tried reading them. Most didn’t make any sense, but there were some official looking papers from Momma’s Great-Aunt Adeline that caught my eye. She passed the year before.

I shook Dad awake and read out loud from the papers. He gave me a bear hug, tears in his eyes—he hadn’t been able to puzzle out the cursive on the deed. We had inherited Aunt Adeline’s dirt farm—10 acres and a creek! Slinging me by the arms, Dad danced like a Holy Roller. He had a mission now.

We were packing up the house when a knock sounded—a rapid rat-a-tat-tat that stopped us cold. “It’s Aunt Eula,” Dad gasped, and we instinctively looked around for a place to hide. She barged in the unlocked door, talking a streak and carrying a tattered parasol, the source of the knock.

“Did you not receive my letters? I have written you precisely every three days since the funeral.” Aunt Eula nodded coldly at me like she always did and Dad escorted her to the sun parlor where they could chat. Aunt Eula was Aunt Adeline’s sister. Momma used to say she was a lot of fun back in the day, when Eula and Adeline were flappers. Adeline stayed sweet and kind, but Aunt Eula soured up the older she got. I guessed she must be about 90 by now.

After she left in her usual huff, Dad gave me the bad news: Aunt Eula was going to be our landlady. Something about her being the executioner of Momma’s estate. “Cheer up, Dad,” I offered hopefully. “Aunt Eula can’t last forever.”

The trip to Van was a slog, but we made it by sundown. We spotted the house down a dirt road, a small wooden structure framed by a pair of big pecan trees. The yard was all grown up with weeds, but the key worked and once inside, we both flopped into the nearest chair and looked around. “Better than the company house in Skunk Holler, ain’t it?” sighed Dad. The front room was dark, so I opened all the curtains. It was definitely a little-old-lady kind of place, but real nice. “Momma would like this,” I blurted without thinking.

I followed Dad into the kitchen. Wood stove, red-handled pump over the sink, a deal table and chairs—he worked the pump until a stream of water flowed into the sink. “Yep, it’s a peach of a place,” Dad said sadly.

He dropped me off at Uncle Harold’s for a few days while he made some repairs to the house. As the Ford rumbled off, Uncle Harold elbowed me, saying, “Want to see a surprise?” I followed him to the kitchen; in a corner on the linoleum was a shoebox. Bo was guarding it, wagging. Inside the box, a tabby kitten peeked out of a nest of lambswool.

I was thunderstruck—here was my first pet. Momma frowned upon “house animals” as she called them. Every turtle, lizard, frog—even chipmunk—that I smuggled home eventually got sent back to the woods, no matter how I begged. All of a sudden, the kitten made a sound like a mudcat does when you pull it out of the water. Scooping up the ball of fur, I asked its name. “That’s your job,” said Uncle Harold. ”She’s all yours.”

“Mudcat. Her name’s Mudcat,” I said, rubbing my face in her fur.

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The next few days were spent fishing off the deck with Mudcat. Uncle Harold sat nearby and whittled, giving me pointers from time to time. Mudcat was the ideal fishing buddy. She sat watching and lashed her tail, sometimes darting off to chase butterflies. I landed a good-sized blue channel catfish after a struggle and Uncle Harold put it on the stringer.

“What’s that cat got ahold of,” he muttered, as Mudcat zigzagged across the deck. It was a leopard frog. Uncle Harold chased down and rescued the hopping frog. “Shoo, Mudcat, this here’s my prize,” he chuckled.

For the next two days, Uncle Harold tormented me with that frog. He hid it in the medicine cabinet, where my toothbrush was. He hid it in the mailbox, in my tacklebox and my bedroom slippers. I got so nerved up from that frog jumping out at me and Uncle Harold cackling in the next room that I finally took the thing and threw it in the river. Uncle Harold pulled a long face; after a while I couldn’t stand it. I ran up the stage plank while he was skinning the catfish and on the third tree trunk I found a peeper—a little green tree frog. Smuggling it onto the houseboat, I looked around for the best place to put it to scare Uncle Harold.

“Altha Ray’s here,” Uncle Harold sang out. I darted into the kitchen with the frog, stashing it in the first convenient place: the sugar bowl. Retreating to my room, I hid under the quilt and listened. Altha Ray came into the kitchen and started her usual clatter with the dishes. I caught the words “peach cobbler recipe” and “cup of sugar” and next thing I knew, Altha Ray was howling like a banshee.

She left without making the cobbler after lecturing Uncle Harold on the sin of wasting good sugar. He poked his head around the doorway. “Guess I’ll take this peeper out and put him to bed,” he grinned. I snuggled with Mudcat until the frogs sang me to sleep.

When Dad showed up the next day, we had a heck of a fish fry, with hush puppies and chow-chow. Uncle Harold asked how the repairs were going, and Dad gave a heavy sigh. His work was now being overseen by the constant presence of Aunt Eula. “She showed up the other day and said she’s staying to make sure I fix everything right,” Dad groaned. “And ever since then, I can’t drive a straight nail.” At that, Uncle Harold uncorked his flask and shooed me off to bed. I eavesdropped from there on in:

“Eula ain’t been right since she ran off with that fancy-pants man,” I heard Uncle Harold say. “I understand she took him for a bundle.”

“Right before the Crash of ‘29,” Dad replied. “What was he up to, some kind of new duds or something?”

“He invented clothes without pockets for those as don’t need ‘em…britches for folks that got butlers to tell what time it is, or to fetch their snuffboxes.” Their snorts of laughter lasted into the night.

School in St. Charles was nearly done for the year, so it was decided the way to ease back in was to attend the May Day fair. Dad and Uncle Harold accompanied me as a united front, and the annual school picnic was more fun than I expected. There was a Maypole, a croquet tournament and a big spread, and all of St. Charles was there. I was eating frog legs when a tall skinny kid sat down beside me. “You’re the one took the rap for the flying squirrel,” he declared, putting out a hand to shake.

His name was L.C. Brown, and he was sitting in the back row in class that day I got whupped. He told me not to worry when I came back to the schoolhouse; that nobody was going to trouble me anymore. As he stood to walk off, I thanked him, and invited him to come out to the houseboat any time. To my surprise, the Pentecostal teacher-lady came right over and visited with Dad, telling him what a good student I was. The prospect of a decent end to sixth grade loomed. I wished Momma could see us now.

The following day, Dad went back to the property. I was teaching Mudcat to fetch, or trying to, when Uncle Harold came out and scanned the sky. The air got real still and he said it was time to come inside, a storm was brewing. We played a game of checkers and thunder began to rumble. A blast of hail hit and drummed on the houseboat. I had fun collecting hailstones and piling them in the sink until the storm abated and we went to bed.

It wasn’t until Dad’s next visit we learned about the effects of that storm on the house in Van. He told us how Aunt Eula went for an after dinner stroll to check the property, and while she was off by the potato field, the wind blew up and all hell broke loose. Dad climbed down from the roof where he was hammering shingles and yelled for Eula from the porch, but before he could go look for her, there came a frog rain.

“It was the damnedest thing I ever saw, Harold,” Dad said. “The air was green and thick with frogs—they were slamming into me like rocks. Eula came screeching up the hill and jumped in her roadster, never even came in the house to get her suitcase—she took off down the road like she was hauling white lightning.”

That was the last time we had to worry about Aunt Eula—she retired to Skunk Holler and kept her distance from then on. We never heard her rat-a-tat-tat again. Every once in a while we’d get a letter from her, but since they were all written in cursive, Dad didn’t pay much attention.

sky

Copyright 2016 Denise White Parkinson

Chapter Three: The Girl in the Graveyard

girl at grave

What is it about sixth grade that it’s the worst year of your life? I pondered this question throughout the long, dreary winter. Skunk Holler was cold and drab, and school was a hard road all of a sudden. The newborn infant said to be my brother (I figured it for a changeling) took up everybody’s time.

Momma stayed sickly after it was born. I couldn’t stand to hear the baby’s colicky cry; made my skin crawl. The day I came home with a report card full of D’s, Daddy said he’d had enough. He was taking me down to St. Charles for a second chance at sixth grade. Any other time, I would have killed to stay on Uncle Harold’s houseboat, but change school? I broke out in hives fretting about it. Momma slathered me with some nasty goo that didn’t even stop the itch. Maybe she was trying to run me off; her strategy worked, as I became too miserable not to leave.

When Dad pulled up to the riverbank, I didn’t look around. Seemed like tears that had been in my eyes for months were still stuck there. Gathering my gear, I went straight to my old room while Dad and Uncle Harold talked. When Dad left, I hardly said goodbye. After tossing around in my cot sniffling, I got up, curious as to why the place was so quiet. A note on the kitchen table said: “Gone to St. Charles. Back shortly.” Next to the note was Altha Ray’s cake tin. Inside was her specialty: chess cake. It tasted so good I began to cry.

Uncle Harold came home with the makings of a party—“just the two of us.” He presented me with a harmonica, and after dinner showed me some tricks on it. At bedtime I found a little wooden whistle on my pillow and brought it to Uncle Harold. He was smoking his pipe in the deck chair, watching the bats swoop. “That’s for you,” he grunted. “It’s a quill I carved out of cedar. Put it on a string and wear it so’s you can whistle for help if you ever get in a pinch.”

I thanked him and went back to bed, stashing the quill under my pillow, and slept a dreamless sleep.

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That first day walking to school, the Dupslaff kids fell in beside me, laughing and joking like old times. The teacher at the one-room schoolhouse seemed a nice old lady. When school let out, I wandered off by myself, distracted by Spring. The dirt road came to an end at a grassy entrance bounded by pillars—the St. Charles Cemetery. Rows of skinny gray headstones decked with spirea and redbud stretched into the distance. Some of the graves were decorated with mussel shells. As I stared, a voice called, “Can you see me?”

I jumped. Was one of the Dupslaff girls yanking my chain? “Yoo-hoo,” came the voice. “Catch me if you dare!” I darted between the rows, zigzagging toward the back of the graveyard. Whoever she was, she was quick. A wall of thick wild blackberries blocked the way and something whizzed by my nose—a hickory nut! Then one bounced hard off my head. “Hey!” I yelled. “Is this any way to treat a stranger?” The hail of nuts stopped, and a girl stepped out from behind a nearby cedar tree.

Her dress was the yellow of jonquils; her hair and skin and eyes were dark as my own. For such a petite thing she was a crack shot with a nut. We studied each other, and she asked, “What’s your quill sound like?” I reached up to where the string necklace was tucked inside my shirt. I hadn’t even thought to try it out yet.

Setting down my books and lunch pail, I fished out the whistle and gave it a blast. The shrill sound made us both jump. “Hush!” she hissed. “You want to wake the dead?” Giving my hand a quick shake, she said, “Pleased to meet you, stranger. My name’s Helen Spence.” I mumbled something about getting back to the houseboat, and she nodded. “Our houseboat’s near to your Uncle’s. He’s friends with my daddy, Cicero. There’s a storm coming, so I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I picked up my things and turned to find her gone. It was late when I got home and Uncle Harold gave me a funny look when I asked if there was a storm coming. I went to bed without mentioning the girl and her dad.

Next day at school I got blamed for something I didn’t do. One of the big kids in the back row found a flying squirrel on the way to school and hid it in his lunch pail. When the teacher was up front writing on the chalkboard, the kid tossed that flying squirrel into the rafters. Everyone watched it swoop around, closer and closer to the teacher’s piled-up gray hair (she was a Pentecostal). When that squirrel landed on her braid there was pandemonium. After the screaming died down, the bully pinned it all on me.

Despite and because of the pleadings of the Dupslaff kids (“Everyone knows River Rats stick together,” the bully insisted) I was doomed. The teacher whupped me in front of the whole class. Some nice old lady—she swung like a ballplayer!

When the bell rang, I ran straight to the cemetery, but Helen was nowhere to be found. Sprawling in dense moss under a shade tree, I fell asleep. I always sleep hard after a whupping, and this was no catnap—I woke with a start to find it was dusk already. What would Uncle Harold say?

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“Your Uncle sent me to fetch you home,” Helen’s musical voice called from the shadows. I grabbed my books and followed as night came on. Helen moved swiftly, surefooted along the paths. She didn’t say a word until we got to the cold spring, gurgling in the dark. “Our place is half a mile up from here. Now, run home—there’s a storm coming,” and she vanished.

Uncle Harold’s houseboat shone like a beacon through the trees, lights in every window. When I came in, all I could do was run up and hug him. We talked about my bad day over second helpings of sausage, grits and a pot of strong coffee. “Your first school whupping deserves your first nip,” observed Uncle Harold, reaching for his flask. Pouring a splash into my cup, he winked. “Today was probably the most fun that teacher-lady had since Prohibition.”

In the morning, I begged not to go to school, but Uncle Harold deemed it necessary for my self respect. I sullenly avoided everybody, even the Dupslaffs. At 3 o’clock I bolted from the schoolhouse and found Helen standing just inside the entrance to the cemetery. “Can’t catch me!” she taunted, and the chase was on.

We ran laughing among the headstones, tagging each other “it.” I collapsed on a patch of clover, panting hard. “Calf rope! I give!” Helen sat down, primly arranging her skirt. She wore stockings like my Aunt Eula used to wear: white cotton fishnet. After I caught my breath (Helen wasn’t even winded) she put her finger to her lips and gave a shush. Slowly she pulled the hem of her dress over her knee. Tucked behind the mesh of stocking was a roll of one hundred dollar bills—biggest wad of cash I ever saw. “That’s $300,” she said, “Daddy needed a place to hide his money.” As I gaped like a mooncalf, she jumped up and ran off, her laughter fading in the distance.

I got home before sunset to find Uncle Harold by the stage plank, scanning the sky. “You been talking about a storm,” he said. Dark blue clouds boiled in the distance, coming in fast from the west. After checking the tow ropes, we moved deck chairs inside. As we sat down to supper, a mighty thunderclap shook the air and the rain came down.

“Do you think Helen and Cicero will be all right in this storm?” I asked Uncle Harold, and a funny thing happened. His head jerked like somebody struck him across the face. Pushing back from the table, he strode to the door and opened it a crack. Flashes of light, roaring wind and rain burst in. “Time for bed,” he said, shutting the door.

A thunderclap woke me from a dead sleep and I was instantly wide awake. I pulled on a pair of rain boots and a slicker. Uncle Harold’s snoring was loud as the storm. Grabbing a lantern, I lit it and made my way out of the houseboat. I had to know if Helen was all right.

I slipped, barking my shin on the rain-slick stage plank. The footpath was easier going, though the trees were thrashing like crazy. I made it past the cold spring but saw no sign of a houseboat. “Helen!” I screamed. The rain ceased and the gale dropped to a whisper; I could hear the clicking of cottonwood leaves. With the force of the sun, a bright light exploded overhead. There was a cracking sound — I turned to see an oak split in two.

Branches crashed down, knocking me to the ground, and the lantern flew off into the dark. Reaching for the quill, I blew as hard as I could, over and over, whistling til all my air was gone. I must have fainted, because when my eyes opened I was in Uncle Harold’s easy chair, bundled in a horse blanket. Bo was licking my hand, wagging, and the storm was subsiding. My Uncle brewed coffee as I checked for injuries—just a barked shin. “How’d I get here?” I asked.

“I found you on the doorstep. Do you believe in miracles?” Uncle Harold held out a yellowed newspaper clipping with the headline: “Outlaw Shot After Escape.” He shook his head, muttering, “They called her the Swamp Angel, but she was just a little river girl.”

33 John Black clippings

The article was ugly as it was short: “Helen Spence, the houseboat girl who killed the man on trial for killing her father, Cicero Spence, was shot down after her fifth escape from Arkansas Women’s Prison. The Grand Jury is investigating claims Spence was the victim of a plot by corrupt prison officials. Spence was buried today beside her father in St. Charles Cemetery’s potter’s field.” I put down the paper. There was no Spence houseboat by the cold spring, not for years and years, anyway.

A telegram arrived in the morning saying Momma and the baby both came down with scarlet fever and died two days apart. I got sent back to Skunk Holler, but this time my tears did not stick inside. I cried them out, slept hard and woke up convinced Momma knew I loved her (I still figured the baby for a changeling). Helen Spence saved me from the storm. She showed me that time, like the river, doesn’t flow in a straight line.

10 Helen and Buster

Copyright 2016 by Denise White Parkinson

Chapter Two: Freshwater Pearls

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The summer after the River Sisters went away, I got sent down to St. Charles to stay with my great-uncle. My mother was expecting; she had the morning sickness so bad it was decided I would spend summer vacation on Uncle Harold’s houseboat.

I could hardly wait to get a hook in the water, and when daddy dropped me off, it felt like coming home. Nothing had changed since my last visit years before: Uncle Harold was just as skinny and bent, with wrinkly brown skin like deer leather. The White River was still green and endless, carrying the smell of a million growing things. Uncle Harold’s houseboat smelled like wet dog, pipe tobacco and fried fish, which we ate a lot. In other words, it was heaven.

I played with the Dupslaff kids down the way, a German family that treated me like a dark-haired version of one of their gangly towheaded boys and girls. Miz Dupslaff made the best bread pudding with whiskey sauce; between that and Altha Ray’s fruit pies, I was eating better than at home, where sweets were for special occasions.

Altha Ray was Uncle Harold’s lady friend. She came by every few days to tidy up the place and fix a big lunch. She and Uncle Harold liked to sit in rocking chairs on the deck, staring off at the sunset. Uncle Harold’s other friend, Mr. S.E., came over Sunday afternoons to play cards and “have a nip.”

Uncle Harold had a nip most every evening. He often fell asleep in his big easy chair in the living room. My room was a little space behind the kitchen, with just a cot and a bookshelf, but cozy. Bo, Uncle Harold’s lab mix, slept with me, something momma never would have allowed.

We went to St. Charles once a week, to the Mercantile. It was a relief to learn Uncle Harold wouldn’t be taking me to church—he said Sunday school for him was fishing with Mr. S.E., outside under the sky. And since “S.E.” stood for “St. Elmo,” I figured they must have a line on the hereafter.

Every time Uncle Harold went to pay at the Mercantile, whether for salt, sugar and flour or penny nails and lye soap, he pulled out a leather pouch, reached inside and handed something to Mr. Ballard. It dawned on me that Uncle Harold was paying for his groceries with pearls! Freshwater pearls from White River mussels.

I began snooping to see where he kept his pearls, and sure enough, one afternoon I peeked through the window as he was lifting up his mattress. He took out a small wooden box and opened it—it was chock full of pearls. So, next time Uncle Harold had a nip and fell asleep in the chair, I went and snuck one little pearl. I wasn’t greedy; I only wanted one teeny-tiny pearl.

When I showed it to the Dupslaff kids the next day, they did not seem impressed. The eldest went and rummaged inside their houseboat and came back holding a matchbox. Inside was a pair of long, skinny pearls. “These are slabs,” the boy said. “River tears,” explained a sister. “Two river tears pulled from the same shell’s bad luck.”

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Uncle Harold asked me to run get a newspaper in town, so I hopped on the bicycle and took off, forgetting I still had the pearl in my pocket. On the way back I came to a one-lane bridge and saw a big dry-lander boy standing blocking the way. The Dupslaff kids had warned me about this bully. They called him “The Troll” because of his frown, and he was glaring at me now.

“Toll bridge,” he yelled. “Empty your pockets!” When I hesitated he rushed over, knocking me off the bike. I reached in my pocket and slowly handed him the forgotten pearl. “I bet there’s more where this came from!” crowed the Troll. I took off running through the woods, clutching tightly to Uncle Harold’s newspaper.

After doubling back a bunch of times and crawling through the swamp, I thought I had lost The Troll. I finally got home and handed Uncle Harold the tattered newspaper, along with some story about getting chased by a swarm of hornets and leaving the bike in the woods. He gave me a funny look and said I could get the bike in the morning. I went to bed praying The Troll would leave us be.

That night, Bo woke us up barking. Footsteps sounded outside on the stage plank as I ran to the living room. “Uncle Harold!” I yelled, “It’s The Troll—he’s coming for your pearls!” In an instant, my Uncle grabbed his shotgun and was out the door. There was a single shot followed by unearthly howling.

“This no-good’s gone and cursed my pearls!” my Uncle thundered as I stepped outside to see The Troll writhing on deck, his hand full of rock salt. “The only way to take off the curse is to throw that box of pearls into the Everlasting Pit!” Uncle Harold ducked inside and retrieved the box. Handing it to me, he dropped his voice as the bully thrashed and moaned.

“Take these—stay gone til this blows over, and then sneak back here,” he said. “That way we don’t have to worry your parents with this mess.” I began to wail. I didn’t want to throw away my Uncle’s treasure.

Uncle Harold leaned in so close his whiskery whiskey-breath tickled my ear. “You think these the only pearls I got hid away? Listen: I was a mussel-sheller for 40 years. I got little cedar boxes like this one buried at every cold spring in Arkansas County. I got pearls to last til the Resurrection.”

“But where do I go?” I cried as he stuffed the box inside my shirt and threw his jacket over my shoulders. “You just head up the road and catch the first bus comes your way,” he said. “Don’t be scared–there’s a full moon to see by. Just go til you git where you’re going!” With that, Uncle Harold gave me such a shove that I staggered off into the night.

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I was asleep on the bench outside the St. Charles post office when the sound of voices woke me. The sun was up and a big green school bus was parked at the stop, surrounded by a bunch of kids. The box was still tucked inside my undershirt. I fell in line with the gaggle of kids and got a few curious stares as I took a seat in the back.

“Are you with the CCC Floating Camp?” asked a bespectacled boy who plunked down next to me. “I never seen you before.” When I didn’t say anything, the kid started talking a mile a minute about the “Big Dam.” At first I thought he was cussing. But after a few miles of listening to him yack, I gathered we were on a field trip to see a dam getting built up north. The bus was full of kids of Civilian Conservation Corps workers—they all lived in a big string of houseboats near St. Charles.

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“Of course, they ain’t finished building the dam yet,” the kid said. “Right now it’s just a big ol’ pit. My dad says it’ll be years before it fills up with water.” I stared out the window. The everlasting pit. A dam upstream from Uncle Harold—what would he say to that? The bus stopped for lunch and the boy, whose name was Nelson, shared his food with me. By now he figured I was a mute, and had quit asking questions.

It was late afternoon when we got to the construction site. Bull Shoals Dam. From the road it looked like a mass of scaffolding, planks and catwalks. The grown-ups herded us to a hillside park with a vantage. A CCC man in khakis and a rounded hat started lecturing about the dam. It was going to be as big as an Egyptian pyramid. I spied the nearest overlook—there was an iron railing off to the side. Hugging the cedar box, I bolted.

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The CCC man grabbed my collar just as I threw the box over the rail. He shook me til my head rattled, cussing the whole time, but I saw the little wooden box sail into the air and pop open, spilling its precious cargo into the gorge.

The CCC man was hollering, “Does anyone know this kid?” when Nelson piped up. “He’s my cousin, Mister. He’s deaf and dumb. Please don’t hurt him.” It was an impressive job—Nelson’s chin trembled as he fumbled with his glasses and wiped at his eyes. The man shrugged and let me go.

When we got back to St. Charles, I was glad to find Uncle Harold had fixed everything. Before long, everybody in town was talking about how The Troll was stealing Altha Ray’s peaches and she fired rock salt at him. Consensus was he’d gotten what he deserved. Everything went back to usual: I swam every day, S.E. came to fish and play cards, and Altha Ray baked pies for us. Uncle Harold said I did a good thing, throwing those pearls into the pit at the dam site. He never mentioned it again.

But later, after I went home and school started up again, I dreamed about that dam. In the dream, the giant gray concrete wall was finished. Behind it, a deep dark lake was filled to the brim. But at the base of the dam, little pinholes were forming, tiny holes the size of seed pearls, that bubbled and spread as I watched until the whole dam was pocked and crumbling. The giant thing exploded into chunks of tumbling cement as water foamed and roared into the gorge.

I had that dream for years, long after the dam was built and the downstream water temperature dropped, killing off the White River mussels and their hidden pearls. But I take comfort at the thought of Uncle Harold’s cedar boxes, buried beside every cold spring in Arkansas County.

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Copyright 2016 by Denise White Parkinson