Authors: Jimmy Fox
Through a fleeting, jagged deadfall of black sky that had opened in the clouds, the sliver of bone-white moon shone on the burial mounds and a solitary standing human form, at momentary rest.
Wooty had dug a hole big enough to contain his friend’s body. He was almost completely exhausted, coated in sweat and dirt. Before taking care of Travis, he’d unloaded and hidden the marijuana at his family’s rustic hunting cabin, deep in the pine woods, where in years past his father had entertained state politicians and business bigwigs with booze, prostitutes airlifted from New Orleans, and plentiful wildlife to be blasted.
The dope had arrived via a clandestine network of couriers. Now it would wait in a dry raised cistern beside the cabin for another crew to start it on the next leg of its malign journey to America’s pushers and users. Wooty didn’t know—didn’t want to know—who his contacts were; identities were compartmentalized for security reasons.
“You played your last game tonight, you big idiot,” he said to the corpse as he started the final stages of concealing Travis’s body.
Wielding his folding field shovel to make as little soil damage as possible, he threw more dirt into the almost-filled grave. Sudden gusts of high wind carried a fine, cool mist, but down in the meadow a thin layer of fog was already starting to cohere, blurring shapes and multiplying
shadows. There would be no major rain tonight, he thought. That was lucky. Give the dirt time to settle back into this particular ancient hump of bones and tribal trash. When he was through, it would appear that some night forager had pawed this area and given up.
Tadbull property, though today only a remnant of the family’s original empire, still enclosed several different types of distinctly Louisiana terrain. Here, the pines reluctantly ceded the higher, drier ground to sweetgum, pecan, magnolia, hickory, and live oak. The trees were very old. Some of the oaks might have been here for centuries, might even have stood sentinel over the fires and drums and dances of the Katogoula burial ceremonies once held down there on the meadow, in front of these mounds.
Wooty wiped his face across his short sleeve and noticed the burst water blisters on his hands.
“Damnit!” he said, and threw the shovel into the empty trailer behind the ATV. He was something of a dandy and had his hands manicured when he got his hair cut in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, or Dallas. He visited each of these cities at least once a month on business for his father—and for himself.
Spectral movement down on the meadow caught his eye. He crouched low to cut his silhouette. The heart-pounding wariness he’d felt on the logging road instantly returned, banishing the aches of his joints and muscles.
A hundred-and-fifty yards away, he estimated—a deer! A big whitetail buck. Two-hundred pounds, minimum.
He relaxed a little. Just a deer. It was the rutting season and deer were very active, devoting most of their daylight hours to the mating game, marking territory and sniffing out does.
The antlers were huge, perfect, maybe fourteen points. But he couldn’t be sure: perspective and color were leached out of the landscape
by the darkness, the low mist set aglow by moonlight, and the subtle graying of the eastern sky.
Probably the buck was returning to his bed after a night of feeding, Wooty thought. But this was no time to dwell on the dream of bagging a fine deer. He had only his pistol and Travis’s revolver, and even if he had his rifle with the night scope he wouldn’t dare fire it. The noise of a shot would carry for miles.
“Old buck,” Wooty said to the deep-blue shadow outlined in phosphorescent white, as it soundlessly entered the indigo woods, “you’re too smart for me tonight.”
Then, just as he was about to climb onto his four-wheeler, Wooty saw another animal emerge stealthily from the dark forest and follow the path the deer had taken.
He rubbed his forehead and eyes and shook his head. Could he believe what he thought he saw?
He trained his gaze on the second animal now moving across the meadow.
“That’s a damn cougar,” he said, his voice no more than an awed whisper, as if he were witnessing a sacred event.
Though protected animals these days, cougars around here had been hunted nearly to extinction in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the white settlers, partly in self-defense, partly for sport. They’d been a favorite prey of Wooty’s own Tadbull ancestors. Now cougars were extremely rare in the Tchekalaya Forest. There were still plenty of bobcats, though; Wooty’s father, in fact, had a few mounted in his study. This was definitely no bobcat.
The cougar stopped and turned in Wooty’s direction. Was it aware of his presence? Wooty held his breath as the cougar seemed to be deciding what to do. He hoped that the distance between them made him an unappealing meal and a minor threat.
And then the big cat did an incredible thing: it rose several feet above the ground fog and appeared to fly rapidly at that height across the remainder of the meadow and into the opposite woods.
Wooty took a few involuntary steps backward.
This was downright spooky!
An icy chill seemed to come up from the burial mound and squeeze his heart.
He’d always known that the cougar was important in Katogoula mythology. In his youth he’d played with the Katogoula boys, particularly the Shawe brothers, Tommy and Carl. The fragments of legends he’d absorbed piqued his young imagination; but since then, he had come to see them as no more than primitive artifacts of a culture that had gone the way of the slaughtered cougar.
Yet, what he’d just seen was almost enough to make a guy a Katogoula in his soul.
A bulbous van with darkly tinted windows sped by Tommy Shawe’s truck, which sat dark and abandoned on the opposite northbound shoulder of the deserted country highway.
Half a mile south of the truck, a spooked armadillo scurried through a new gap in the weeds; at this very spot, Tommy, unconscious, had just been dragged from the shoulder of the road. The armadillo blundered onto the asphalt-and-gravel pavement and paused unwisely, raising its pointed snout to sniff details that its poor eyesight didn’t provide.
Mancel’s van slammed into the animal, disintegrating it in a spray of leathery shell, blood, and viscera.
Barely swerving, the van accelerated until its taillights dipped out of sight several miles away and the shriek of its engine subsided into the deceptive peacefulness of the dark forest.
arl Shawe could have killed for some hot coffee—well, at least hurt somebody real bad.
He’d finished his pint of bourbon about four that morning and had flung the empty bottle into the dark, murky waters of Lake Katogoula. Now he watched through bleary eyes the first eruptions of dawn set molten purple-and-orange fire to the clouds above the trees on the eastern shore.
Boy, a good cup of strong brew sure would clear the bats from his brain! He hadn’t seen his old, dented Thermos for years; besides, domestic tedium like making a pot of coffee in advance wasn’t his style. Woman’s work, that was.
Probably best he didn’t have any. The deer he stalked would smell the swirling, pungent, delicious cloud of coffee steam and would leap away into the thicket.
Carl took a few gulps from his water canteen. A piss-poor substitute for coffee, or bourbon. Quietly, very quietly, he spit a mouthful out. He knew this deer had hearing even better than its sense of smell. It was a big one, a survivor. Survivors don’t get that way by being dumb, by letting their guard down.
Some hunters covered their noisiest gear in camouflage felt. Not Carl. An Indian hunter knew how to be quiet when necessary, without fancy precautions.
Indian, my ass!
He shook his head ruefully at his own delusions, delusions he’d used to hold together his wasted life of gloomy reclusiveness, rabid drinking, and undirected rage.
The question of which part of him was Katogoula, which part white, Carl had never been able to resolve. He had long before given up the effort to arrange a truce in his warring soul, erecting instead a stockade of bitterness around his confusion of identity. At certain times he hated the white man within him for his cutthroat cultural victory; at others, he despised his Katogoula heritage for allowing itself to be so shamefully defeated.
Carl sat concealed in the blind he’d fashioned close to the deer tracks leading to the water’s edge. He’d stuck cattail, palmetto, and long grasses in the mud around a clumping of cypress knees, one of which had served as a pleasant enough backrest during the dark, drizzly hours he’d already waited. Using the same itchy materials, he’d festooned his clothing to break up his human form, becoming, he noted wryly, a strange scruffy turkey, as if he were awaiting communion with some guardian spirit bird—the kind of superstitious, primitive crap he thought he’d outgrown. Deer don’t see colors the way humans do, but shapes that stand out as unusual can send them running, even in moonlight. Carl’s forest sense had not abandoned him.
Carl pictured what he hoped would happen. . . . The deer would cautiously emerge from the stand of willows and cottonwoods, and step out onto the buff-colored mixture of clay and mud that sloped into the lake. He would saunter right by him, muscles twitching, tail erect in alertness, rack of antlers poised for challenge. He would lower his proud and graceful neck for a long drink from the lapping lake water
and, eventually, turn back toward the thick woods, where he bedded down before resuming his own hunt for does, this being prime rutting season hereabouts. And as the buck turned, Carl would strike, sending an arrow through the great unsuspecting beast’s heart.
“Come drink, my friend!” Carl said. “I been hunting you for near a week. Ain’t no way around it: one of us gotta die this morning.”
A hunter showed respect for the prey by putting himself in danger. Carl considered it an insult to an animal to kill it from hundreds of yards away. He remembered several close calls when wounded deer had charged him in their death throes and almost gored him with their sharp antlers. He’d won those battles and hung the racks outside his ramshackle cabin on stilts over his slope-tail travel trailer, which he’d acquired from a junkyard six years before for the price of a totaled Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
His personal fort was on his brother Tommy’s land. Just let that wimp try to throw him off!
Carl was the bad seed of the Shawe family, everyone had always said. The accepted opinion around Three Sisters Pantry was that his parents died of grief and shame after he went to prison the first time for repeated, flagrant out-of-season hunting and selling of game. That was before Nooj took over as the area Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries enforcement agent.
Carl had no use for laws and those who imposed them, but he and Nooj had a deal. Nooj—Nugent Chenerie—was from these parts. He had more Indian in him than many of the old folks; looked Indian, too, much more so than the twins Carl and Tommy. Nooj often sat and drank beer with Carl, amid Carl’s hoard of scavenged possessions and hand-lettered “NO TRESPASAN” signs.
When he was assigned to this district a few years back, Nooj flat out told him, “Carl, I don’t mind you taking what you need, but don’t be
letting those white fat cats you guide for break the rules. Or we’ll have everybody and his cousin in here thinking they can take advantage of us. Like in Mexico, with the white-wing dove. Those greedy bastards’ll shoot till there’s no ducks left, and then spit and leave, the way the oilmen and the lumbermen always done us. Carl, they’ll ruin our lake, forever.”
Carl had stuck to the agreement. It was turning out to be a cozy understanding of winks and nods. Just keep his hunters in line, for the most part, and Carl could go a little over the limit on mallards or pintails, take a deer every now and then when the calendar said no. Which was why the rich bastards kept using him. . . . Nevertheless, today he would use his bow. No sense asking for trouble with a gunshot.
Besides, using his bow just felt right; more natural, more attuned to something that defied translation, but which he knew to be his Katogoula inheritance: a way of living, thousands of years old, that like instinct had passed to him without the need for words and lessons.
An instinct, like the way he
how to make a dugout canoe by hand, laboriously burning away the cavity in a split cypress log and then carefully, perfectly chipping and scraping it out with a hatchet or a chisel or even a knife. He would never auger and peg it for a mathematically correct thickness, as the Cajuns used to in fashioning their later version of the traditional Louisiana bayou boat, the pirogue. His pirogues were always thin and tough and perfect, with very few modern compromises. Once, when some LSU archaeology students were hanging around asking damn fool questions and snapping pictures, one of them noticed him making a gourd scoop, with the circular cutting motion he had always used. She asked him why circular, and he couldn’t answer her.
He made a little money when those college folks came up here, showing them around the woods. He rather enjoyed being a curiosity.