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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
Copyright 2016 by Denise White Parkinson