Black of the Swamp

The swamp engulfs the last blood-red vestige of the sun, and darkness falls over me like a vast sheet. In every direction, the sound of crickets chirping and frogs croaking creates an almost overpowering din. It rings in my head like death chants, like a million haunted, lost souls informing me in unison. . . . I will not leave the swamp alive.

The murky, dark smell of the black water fills my nostrils, along with the musty odor of the Spanish moss hanging in gnarled, rotted blankets from the tree limbs. The smells are so different from those I knew back home, but not bad, now that I am used to them. Still, they will always bring a feeling of horror back to my heart.

I lean weakly against the bald cypress tree, its solid trunk cold in comparison to the warm water that oozes around me, up to my waist. I cling to the trunk in desperation, knowing to let go of it means to die. In the swamp, that tree is my only friend.

And somewhere in the black of the swamp, men I have never seen search relentlessly to find me. And to take my life.

I try gingerly to move my leg, to ease the throbbing that begins in my left ankle, works its way up my calf, then climaxes in a searing sensation just below my knee. I stifle the cry that rises in my throat, clenching my teeth and ramming my eyes shut until the pain slowly ebbs to its normal level. I fear my ankle is broken, but if it is at least it's a closed wound. Worse is the ragged gash where the knife sank in below the outside of my knee, and I grimace at the thought of the muddy, bacteria-infested water seeping incessantly into the wound.

I look around me for some kind of weapon. . . . but there is none.

It amazes me how dark it is now in the east, although a faint, violet glow burns on above the matted cypress tops in the west. Stars pepper the sky, eternally distant, blinking lanterns, promising light but delivering very little. The moon hasn't yet risen, but I can see the hazy-dark silhouettes of the towering cypress trees against the starlight. I lean against the sloping, slick, over-sized trunk of my tree and gaze at a snowy egret that now, too, has become only a dark form, watching me, waiting. Waiting. . . .

I study the dim outline of two night herons that glide silently through the western afterglow, their great wings carrying them home. And as they disappear among the treetops I turn my attention to my wounded leg and begin to tear my shirt into strips with which to form a bandage. . . .

 

Louisiana was not my home. Even though I had lived there two months now, and my wife and I had bought a house, I couldn't get used to the glaring differences between this place and my old stomping ground back in Bozeman, Montana. The trees were different, the birds were different, the water was different, the animals were different. . . . and most of all, the people were different.

I had been afraid of all this, wondering if I would like the changes, but really I hadn't much say. Transfers are frequent for Federal Fish and Wildlife wardens, and a man has to go where his best interests call him. They called me a model warden. I never questioned the decisions of my supervisors. That's why I was here now.

"A young conservation officer on his way up the ladder has to play the part." The last words of my supervisor in Montana still burned in my ears. He shook my hand, and we parted, and I turned my back reluctantly on Montana, wondering if any promotion could ever be worth leaving behind rainbow trout fishing in the Gallatin and Madison Rivers or hunting elk and deer in the Gallatin Mountains and behind Mount Ellis.

Things weren't so bad in the new office for the first two months. Many of my co-workers were drifters from elsewhere, too. One of them had come from Idaho, so I had company who understood my homesickness. And as for the environment and the climate, I adapted quickly. I tried to look at it like an extended vacation, hoping some day I could go back to the west.

It was country hick ways even worse than those of the backwoods-men of western Montana that had taken some getting used to, and I wasn't sure I could ever understand them. One of those "hicks" became my new partner. Often we worked alone, but when we did work in pairs, I was with Andre LeNoir.

Andre LeNoir was a Cajun. He stood six-foot-six in his socks and weighed over two hundred and sixty pounds, and very little of it was fat. Even though he had no Scandinavian characteristics, his rough ways and muscular, imposing stature reminded me of a Viking, and I had nicknamed him "Andre the Bold." He liked a good joke, and he always laughed when I said it. I guess turnabout is fair play, for he had dubbed me the "Montana Mountie," a name that eventually became simply, "Monty."

Like I said, Andre was a Cajun. He had grown up in the swamps and backwoods of southern Louisiana. He knew the people like a mind-reader. He knew the country like his own backyard. He knew shady characters and wells of information that no blond-headed "Montana Mountie" would ever even get close to. His big, beefy hands were black-haired, like his head, and made for fighting men or alligators. The state department of wildlife did massive amounts of research on 'gators, and Andre had started out as a biology aide for the state. That was where he obtained the jagged scar that ran the length of his right forearm, ending at the wrist. That was also where he earned the nickname, "Gator hater."

Like I said, the first two months of my sojourn went fine, and I caught on quickly to the idiosyncrasies of the new job. But then came the night my supervisor, Bob Fowler, called all of us wardens into his grungy little office.

I was in charge of six conservation officers, all of them likeable men. We were working an alligator poaching case that, in spite of all our efforts, seemed to be ballooning far beyond what we were equipped to handle. Our first break in the case had come that evening, when a man we called the Snake, a regular informant, had called Fowler at home. Fowler was a man of vast impatience, and it was Friday night. Of course he couldn't wait until eight o'clock Monday morning, and so here we were.

The room was stifling. It smelled of musty magazines and Hoppes Number Nine gun solvent. Gruesome odds and ends such as 'gator skulls and water moccasin skins and skeletons adorned Fowler's desk and shelves, and law books argued for a place among them, along with a picture of his wife, a worn- out forty-five-year-old who had never borne him any children. The room smelled strongly of cigar smoke; Fowler smoked the foulest tobacco there was. To a man who had never smoked, it was sickening.

Bob Fowler was fifty years old, with black hair and the olive skin of a Cajun. His beard was almost completely white, and the wrinkles that etched his face gave him ten years he hadn't seen. Fowler was from the old school. He didn't talk much, just did what needed doing and said what had to be said in as few words as possible.

"Boys, I got a call on the phone t'night. You know the feller I call the Snake? Well, he's been a help in the past. He helped us crack the Egglesford case last July, over in Shreveport. He's a weird duck, I s'pose, but he's always seemed reliable. He called me t'night t' tell me the where'bouts of a 'gator poachers' camp. Give me good directions, too. These men're killers, boys. He claims they killed two men already down there, an' there's booby traps thick as dog's hair. Grenades, knives tied to saplings-- everything. But these fellers've killed twenty-five 'gators in the last week, an' they've gotta be stopped. I'm lookin' fer five volunteers."

The room went deathly silent. Even as new as I was, I knew that to Fowler any sound--even a cough--would be considered volunteering. And don't get me wrong, I wanted to get these poachers. That was my job, and they made me angry. But I didn't know exactly what Fowler's game plan was, and I had a big campout planned with my wife, Debbie, and the children that weekend. Apparently, so did everyone else.

Except one man.

When Andre LeNoir stood out of his chair, he towered over the rest of us, so no one there could have not seen him. A groan, more felt than heard, went through the room, for now this was a thing of honor. And as for me, I was Andre's partner and immediate supervisor. I had no choice but to stand up, too.

The other three who finally swallowed their cowardice were also underlings of mine, and I'll say I was proud of them. Greene, Briggs, Layton. I smiled and nodded at them, and we turned our attention back to Fowler.

 

In the dark, two hours before dawn, I said good-bye to Deb. "I'll be home before dark. I hope."

She smiled, trying to hide her disappointment at the missed camping trip. Her sleepy eyes almost went all the way shut when she smiled, and she reached out and took my hands. "Be careful, honey. I've heard so many bad stories from Andre."

"I'll be careful. Hey. Don't worry, there's six of us. We'll be all right."

Deb nodded. "Are you sure you don't want me to wake up the kids? They'll be disappointed they didn't get to say good-bye."

"No, let 'em sleep. I'll see 'em when I get home."

Deb brightened suddenly. "Hey, maybe you can go to church with us Sunday, and then we can have a picnic afterward."

"Ah, not again," I groaned. "I told you, I'm not in the mood for church. I hardly have time to do anything as it is. You know that. But the picnic sounds good. We'll see."

At the office, Bob Fowler and Andre were already waiting. Greene, Briggs, and Layton showed up a while later. Fowler and Andre had already downed a pot of coffee between the two of them and were seated at Fowler's desk going over a map of the swamp. They barely looked up as I came in. We pinpointed the general area of the camp as best we could on the map, and planned our best strategy for approaching it, then loaded up our gear in two beat-up Ford pickups and Fowler's brand new Dodge and headed out of town.

It was seven o'clock when Fowler finally pulled his truck up in the weeds along the forested road, his motor boat rocking to a stop behind him. I followed suit, stopping directly to his rear, and I heard the crunching of weeds and the hum of Greene's motor as he rolled up behind me. The world was coming to life, and we watched a raccoon and her babies scurry off into the undergrowth as we climbed stiffly out of the truck. Andre and I grabbed our lunch and went and lowered the tailgate, wrestling the aluminum canoe from its resting place.

Bob Fowler came over and stood with his hand on the side of the truck, watching us silently. Our breath puffed into the air in small, frosty clouds. He cleared his throat after we had laid the canoe on the ground. As he started to speak, his eyes went from one to the other of us, and his face was dead serious.

"You two know what to do." His voice was gruff. "It's still best if you find the camp to just mark it and meet us back here. We'll try t' do the same. But if they see you, be ready to fight. I'd like these fellers alive, 'cause I'm shore there's a lot more of 'em they could lead us to. But if you have t' shoot, blast it, shoot t' kill. They won't give you any chances, so don't give them any, for Heaven's sake. Understood?"

Andre nodded, his unruly black hair shaking into his face until he brushed it aside. "Shoot to kill." It was a well-known fact at the office--for Andre it wouldn't be the first time he killed a man.

Fowler looked at me now. "You'll make a good warden, Monty, if you c'n just survive a few of these kind o' days. We got different ways here, but they match the people we're up against. Don't let them Cajuns out there fool ya. Most of 'em have killed before, an' if they haven't it's not for lack of tryin'. They don't hesitate t' shoot. I mean it. Just watch Andre. He moves, don't be wastin' any time t' follow. You'll find out, he's a good man in a scrape."

"All right," I replied, turning to look at Andre. He gave me a big grin with three missing teeth that spoke of his wilder days.

"Good luck, boys." Fowler hadn't even shaken my hand when I first met him at his office two months ago. Now he did, with a firm grip that lasted several seconds. I guess that, more than any words, brought the danger of this mission home to me.

Andre and I watched Fowler's khaki-colored Dodge roll away up the rutted road, Greene's Ford following closely. When they were out of sight we could still hear the faint grumble of Greene's engine. Andre turned to me, a black plastic lunch box and thermos under his left arm, an M1 carbine in a canvas bag in his right hand. He motioned toward the canoe with a tilt of his chin, and we threw in our lunch. He took the rifle from its makeshift case and laid it carefully at the bow, and then with one of us on each end we hefted the canoe and started off through the woods.

It smelled of decay under the forest canopy. Dead, rotted leaves clumped up in the lug soles of our boots. Andre was too big to duck the spider webs that criss-crossed our path, and he just took them as they came, once in a while cursing as a spider tried to crawl up him. I was glad he was at the front. I had never liked spiders.

Far away, we heard a 'gator roar. That and the rising smell of moisture told us we were nearing the swamp, and soon the ground beneath the leaves began to get mushier until we were sinking in almost to our boot laces. At last, we stood beside the water. In the early morning, an eerie stillness gripped the woods. We heard birds chirping and chatting around us, but we hadn't seen many of them. They seemed to be hiding. It was a strange new world for me here. It was frightening how little I knew of this terrain, and I was eternally grateful I was with Andre LeNoir. I could have survived untold days in the Montana wilderness with a knife my only tool, but here I would probably starve to death or succumb to some other horrible fate, the poison of some unknown plant or the bite of a water moccasin.

Without any need to speak, Andre motioned me into the canoe, and I stepped in, its bottom creaking plaintively. Andre pushed away from the mossy shore, then jumped in, nearly capsizing the boat and scaring me wider awake than I already was. I turned and looked at him irritably, but his toothless return grin made me smile. I just couldn't be angry with a man as full of humor as Andre was.

With deft hands, Andre dipped his paddle into the brown water, propelling us forward. First on one side, then the other, guiding us around cypress trees that rose like towers from the water. I looked about me, imagining in spite of myself I was enjoying some ride at Disneyland--the Pirates of the Caribbean or something. It was a pleasant morning when looked at in that light. I can't say it wasn't eerie, for even in broad daylight it was to a born and bred Montana boy. But with the sun up the swamp took on an intriguing charm. I had seen many pictures of the Florida Everglades, which reminded me a lot of this place, but I had never been there myself. This was just as I'd imagined it.

The silence was the most amazing part. There were sounds, many of them, but the general tranquility of the scene seemed to magnify any little sound five times its normal volume. A cough, a sneeze, the dip and swish of the oars--they were like thunder in the stillness. Dew dripped from the overhanging moss and branches with the clap of marbles dropped out of the sky, shattering the dull brown sheen of the water. Distant birds called to each other far back in the trees yet sounded as if they were just out of sight. Occasionally, the roar of a 'gator from far away stilled the other sounds, or one nearby dove with the crash of a cannonball into the depths. But still, these sounds were occasional and accentuated the quiet.

All around us loomed the bald cypress trees, stands of them forming mysterious corridors that wandered this way and that, disappearing at last in some secret cove. Abundant, too, was the wildlife. Turtles sunned themselves on dead roots that twisted, green with moss, from the water. Sparrows and finches flitted through the trees, and brown creepers hung vertically, sometimes almost upside down, from branches or sheets of Spanish moss. A water moccasin coiled in a heap near shore, immobile. Another glided silently and gracefully before the canoe. Once, we watched a herd of little white-tailed deer bound away across an island, their gleaming white tails flashing in the sun. As Andre propelled us forward, a flock of snowy egrets squawked and rose in a flurry from the cypress branches. Then again the silence descended. There was more of that than anything else, deep in the swamp.

 

Andre and I talked very little. It was partly because we didn't want to be heard by any poachers that might be nearby, but partly because it seemed sacrilegious to interrupt the solitude. We communicated through hand signals or facial expressions. Andre would see a particularly large alligator or an exotic turtle or bird and would point excitedly, then turn and grin his gap-toothed grin at me. His excitement always made me smile. Sometimes he was just like a kid. But when the moment had passed, his big arms once more worked that paddle, throwing us deeper and deeper into the swamp.

We found the poachers' camp late in the afternoon, ten or twelve miles into the swamp--we couldn't be sure. As silently as Andre had moved us along, he now drove us into the bank. The canoe came to an abrupt stop, and I stood and leaped to shore, tying the towline to a low-growing tree. Total silence had descended now. No sound at all arose from the swamp. The sun shone brightly in the west, but a tangled canopy of leaves and vines threw the camp into dappled shade. A large gray canvas tent crouched crookedly in the middle of a clearing, six nylon cords stretched tautly to the sides, anchoring it. A greasy black grill covered a fire hole several feet in front of the tent door. A clothesline stretched between two trees, the wire rusty and corroded by the muggy air of the swamp. Decayed leaves carpeted the ground, forming a solid mass of spongy brown.

Shooting me a wary glance, Andre pulled his Colt forty-five automatic pistol from its holster and checked to make sure it had a round chambered. He reholstered it and picked up the M1 carbine, giving it a pat as he winked at me. I checked my forty caliber Glock, then kept it ready in my hand, and with a nod to Andre we started forward.

We moved slowly, carefully, watching the woods around us. My pulse beat strongly against the tight brim of my ball cap. I breathed through my mouth, my lips formed as if I had been mouthing the word, "you", and been frozen in the middle of it. Just an odd habit I had when the adrenaline was high and I expected to have to jump at any moment. The moist leaves whispered beneath my feet and Andre's, and I felt them compress like sponges. We were twenty yards from the tent, and still no sound or movement. Was there anyone inside? Was there someone hiding in the trees around us? Did they have dogs? When would they make a move?

Suddenly, a metallic clamor shook the swamp, and my heart leaped. Andre and I dove for the ground, landing in the wet leaves, then swinging our eyes left and right, looking for what had made the sound. I looked anxiously at Andre, and his eyes were raised toward something above us in the thick canopy of the trees. I let my own gaze follow his, and just as the metallic noise died down I saw it there in the trees. Several strings of tin cans hung suspended by piano wire, painted green and nearly invisible in the leaves.

Sheepishly, I glanced back at Andre, and he was watching me. We stared at each other for several seconds, and when both of us realized it was safe to move, we rose to a kneeling position, looking around us at the ground. I detected the piano wire on the ground, only half-covered now with leaves. It was attached between two trees, then ran up one of their trunks and into its branches, and from the end of it suspended the strings of cans. Of course, the part of the wire on the ground lay at my feet. It was I who had tripped it.

Andre began to laugh, at first a dry, whispering sound, then a whiny, hoarse sound like a hound being choked to death. I quickly put a finger to my lips to silence him, and after one last chuckle he wiped a big, hairy hand across his mouth.

"That's a booby trap, Monty. So you must be the booby!" He laughed his dry, quiet laugh again, then quickly let his eyes dart about the shadowy woods. He looked back at me and whispered, "If they're anywhere's close, they heard them cans. They might come a-runnin'."

I nodded, all too aware of that fact. With a wildly pounding heart, I pushed to my feet, my pistol out in front of me like a fencer holds his sword. I moved in a slow circle, peering into the shadows as if still-hunting mule deer on some tangled mahogany ridge back home. But with mule deer it was only a question of bringing home a trophy. You didn't have to worry about defending your life.

I looked back at Andre. Our eyes met, and he shrugged. He motioned with his chin for me to move forward, and I did. I stepped to the tent, then crouched low and eased open the door while standing to one side. Of human life, it was empty.

"You stay out here and watch," I ordered Andre in a whisper. "You see anyone coming, just slap the tent."

Andre nodded, and I stepped through the tent door and let the flap fall back in place behind me. Inside, there was enough room for me to stand to my full height, and by the diffused sunlight through the canvas I could clearly see most of the contents in the dank space. Various articles of the hunter's trade littered the floor--a camouflage backpack, used rifle and pistol shells-- some in boxes, some loose--a small Lee handloader, soiled army fatigues, a sniper's uniform, and three skinning knives, one of them still crusty with dried blood.

In one corner, stretched loosely over some unknown object, was a tan, blood-stained tarp. I stepped to it and lifted a corner. As if I hadn't already known, what I saw there left no room for doubt whose camp this was. I felt my heart thud inside my chest. At least ten fresh 'gator hides were salted and stacked there in a neat pile.

Outside, I heard a sudden noise. Then I thought I heard Andre whisper something to me, but he never slapped the tent canvas like I had told him. Curiously, I straightened up from the 'gator hides and backed toward the door, taking one last look at the contents of the room. I fumbled at the tent door with one hand while still looking about the room, then as I found it I eased it open and turned to step outside.

I opened my mouth to speak to Andre, but no words came. My eyes stared in horror at my partner as the picture before me slowly registered on my mind. My heart stopped cold. My muscles froze, my legs failed me. My mouth hung open like I was gasping for air, which I probably was.

There before me, pinned like some grotesque scarecrow to the trunk of a sweetgum tree by a six- foot-long spear, was my partner, Andre LeNoir. His rifle lay on the ground at his feet.

Whirling around at a rustle in the bushes to my side, I caught two dark forms rushing forward. Behind the tent I heard another. I had never holstered my Glock, and instinctively I turned and fired. A growl of pain issued from the bushes. Then, with the adrenaline flowing hot inside me, I was off across the clearing, running right past Andre. I never thought until later about picking up his carbine, but I realized there wouldn't have been time anyway. I would have been killed had I tried.

As I dodged sweetgum and wild plum trees I heard a muffled rattle behind me, and invisible projectiles spat angrily against the tree trunks around me and over my head. The poachers had a machine gun, at least one, and were using a muzzle. These men were well-outfitted. I ran with all there was in me, oblivious to the searing in my lungs. My radio cord snagged on a branch as I ran past, and I felt the radio ripped right from my pocket. But I had no time to go back for it. On and on and on I ran, stumbling now and then, once slipping on a mossy log and falling into the wet leaves. Striking my head on a tree trunk, I came to an abrupt stop and pushed shakily to my feet, continuing my headlong flight.

 

I didn't even know in what direction I fled anymore. I only knew I had to get away. I had to get back to the road. I had to find Fowler and the boys. I had to get help. These men would kill me or expend every effort in trying. But I didn't know where the road was. I didn't even know where the water was now. I had the strangling, sickening feeling I would never leave the swamp. I had the horrible, slow- moving sensation of nightmares, and I called on every shred of faith inside me to pray that was all this was. I just didn't want to believe it was true.

Suddenly, I heard a whir. Something slashed at my leg, just below my knee. I lunged sideways, then gained my path once more and dashed on, raising my arms to ward off the vicious, sharp-thorned branches that clawed mercilessly at my face, neck, and clothes.

I must have run two miles, though it seemed more like five, when the adrenaline began to ebb and my burning lungs would let me go no farther. I leaned against a tree for support, breathing in great gasps that seared my throat and lungs. My chest ached, and blood oozed from my face, hands, and neck where thorns and branches had ripped through the skin.

It was then the burning sensation began in my leg. I looked down at it and felt the bile rise in my throat. I stared in horror. Whatever had struck my leg, probably another booby trap, a knife or a stake tied to a sapling, had sunk deep into my calf. My running had slashed it even worse by tearing the object loose, and blood ran freely from the ragged gash. I knew it needed badly to be bandaged, but it also needed much more. Antiseptic. Stitching. And for all I knew, whatever had caused it might have been poisoned. But I had no time to spare. My first order was escape. If that were possible, then I could worry whether I might lose the leg or not.

Somewhere back the way I had come, I heard footsteps, loud crashing ones coming through the trees. One man? Two? I couldn't tell how many. It was still too far away. Then they stopped, and for a long, agonizing minute I waited, my ears strained for the smallest sound.

Suddenly, the hair began to rise on the back of my neck. I looked down to see goosebumps raised on my forearms, and I quickly looked up and all around me. Nothing moved, but I had the horrible sensation of being watched. I had felt that only two other times in my life, at least so strongly. Once was when a poacher I was trailing had lain on a mountain trail with the crosshairs of his rifle scope trained on my head, and another time was in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana when it turned out I had unknowingly walked right past a mother grizzly with two cubs.

Where were my pursuers? Their footsteps had seemed so close, and with my sixth sense alerted as it was I wondered if they weren't watching me even now. But what if they weren't? What if they had moved off?

Looking around me for some type of cover, my eyes kept returning to the tree against which I had stopped to rest. It stretched toward the sky, bushy and full of vines. It made me think of a Tarzan movie. Would this tree conceal me, I wondered? Not behind its trunk, as I had initially considered, but up high in its branches. How good could these Cajuns track? How good were their sixth senses? Would they feel me watching them?

But did it really matter? If they got close, I could take them. I was good with my pistol. I consistently took home medals at every match I entered, if not a gold then at least a silver or a bronze. And under the circumstances I didn't feel I would have any qualms about shooting at an unsuspecting enemy. If they found me, it was plain they meant to kill me the way they had Andre. This poaching was serious business to them.

The way my ripped leg and my lungs felt, could I keep running through the swamp, even if I wanted to? I looked around me again, then back up into the tree. I had spent many hours climbing in the trees of a twenty acre backyard in my Montana childhood home. That was second nature. And right then that tree seemed like my only friend.

Stuffing the Glock behind my belt, I grabbed the nearest branch and started to climb. One after another the branches presented themselves, as if while growing they had known one day they would be called upon this way. I climbed until I was about fifteen feet off the ground, and there I stood on the last really sturdy branch I could see and hugged the trunk of the tree. And waited. . .

Then I heard the sound. It started as a low, irregular hum, growing gradually closer. I had hunted the woods enough to recognize the odd jumble of human voices muffled by the forest, and my heart caught in my throat. I pulled the Glock out and checked the chamber one more time, assured by the faint, brassy twinkle of the shell inside.

Gazing out through the trees, I could see nothing. The branches of the tree, although admirably hiding me, also hid my pursuers from view. I would have to trust my ears.

But suddenly I no longer had that option, for the sounds ceased again. This time the minutes seemed interminable. Five, ten, fifteen. I pretended to count them as they passed, yet I had no idea how many. I had lost all concept of time. I only knew it wasn't long till sunset, and then it would be years until the sun came up again.

The voices came again, and so intent was I on listening for them I didn't even realize they were there for several seconds. When I did, I strained to hear them, but I could make out no words. Were they talking about me? Did they know where I was? Were they formulating a plan to surround and kill me? The wild thoughts racing through my brain only tortured me, and I tried to force them out.

When I heard the footsteps again, they were moving away from me. Away! Elated, I clung to the tree, trying to quiet my breathing, hoping my ears weren't just playing tricks on me. No, I could still hear the footsteps, and they were definitely headed in the other direction. They faded gradually, and then they were no more.

I looked toward the sky, and my elation quickly ebbed. I had very little daylight left, and I had to get out of these woods. I had to somehow find my way back toward the highway, though even if I did it didn't ensure I was out of danger. These men were killers. They would just as soon murder me in a city as deep in the swamp, and I could never forget that. To do so meant to give my life up to them. I had to be always watchful, wary. I had to think like the big game and rabbits and pheasants I myself pursued. For the first time in my life, I had to think like the hunted. I silently prayed I could be as wise and elusive as those massive-racked mule deer bucks that hid in the thickets of mahogany back home.

I didn't know how far my pursuers had gone from me, or why they had, but in view of the fading day, I had to be on my way. I would just have to take my chances. Slowly, favoring my aching leg, I descended from the tree and started in the direction I felt I had to go. I followed a game path for a while, but I soon realized how foolish that was. Those big mountain bucks didn't follow trails. My pursuers could find me too easily on a trail. What would those bucks do, I wondered?

With a wild thought, I turned from the path and headed toward where I thought the swamp might lie. I suddenly realized the murky water provided my only means to escape my pursuers, and although it was always possible its lurking dangers might try to kill me, I had no doubt the poachers would. While I was the fox, and the poachers were the hounds, I really had no choice.

 

I thanked the merciful leaves beneath my feet. It was easy to go silent here, with a little care, due to the rotted state of the ground cover. Looking down, I saw I was leaving a trail of blood for my pursuers, and that made it even more urgent that I reach the swamp. There my blood would wash away.

I smelled the dark water before I reached it, and I sighed as the cypress trees came into sight. I eased into the water gently, and its tepidity felt good. It soothed the pain rising up my leg. I thought of my blood seeping into the water and wondered if alligators would be brazen enough to attack a full- grown man. I knew crocodiles would, and I had heard horror stories about alligators, but I didn't remember ever hearing on the news about them killing anyone. Still, it was a chilling thought to imagine a reptile as big as a canoe falling for the scent of my blood.

I waded through the still, brown water close to shore, afraid how deep it might be farther out. I still held my pistol. With the thought of alligators and water moccasins, to say nothing of the poachers, lurking in my mind, it was my only comfort, and I clutched it close to my body like a wino cradles his last bottle.

I didn't want to leave the shore behind. I couldn't swim very well and knew I'd be no match for a 'gator in deeper water. But as the shoreline veered farther and farther away from the direction I sensed I needed to go, I knew I must strike out into deeper water. So I pushed out from the comfort of the trees on shore, and soon the water was waist-high.

I hadn't heard any sound I could identify as human since entering the water. I stopped now and then, listening closely back the way I had come. There was nothing. Only the occasional sound of birds or of turtles or frogs splashing into the swamp when I came too close. I saw a water moccasin glide across the top of the water, smooth and easy. Holding perfectly still, I watched him as he passed, and his eyes seemed to bore into mine, but he didn't pause. When he was gone, I released a sigh. I didn't mind snakes normally. They minded their business most times, if you did. But stick me in waist-deep water, and I quickly become afraid of anything, even of my own hair blowing across my forehead unexpectedly. I found that out several times that afternoon.

I moved cautiously along, warily watching the sun drift too quickly down the western sky. There was a long stretch of soggy land to my left now, seemingly a favorite spot of alligators, as I had seen several in the last twenty minutes. They were all small, none over six feet, and seemed content to just lie sunning themselves. They barely even moved their eyes as I passed, and I guessed they had used up their energy recently by killing a meal and were letting it build back up. For that I was glad. Only once did one leap into the water at my approach, and I was soon relieved to see it was only to make its escape. I saw its jagged back saw through the water ahead of me and disappear in the other direction.

But though the 'gators seemed to give me no cause for concern, as the sky began to darken, I started to worry. Like every other stranger to Louisiana, I had heard the horror stories about the monsters of the swamp. I had heard of 'gators that grew to ten or eleven feet. Even more. In my book that was huge, and in the water they had every advantage. So they weren't man-eaters? Just what if one decided to try? Or what if one was protecting its territory? I wasn't really worried about being eaten. I was more worried about being killed in the first place. If they accomplished that, they might as well clean me up too, I thought wryly. I smiled at my own twisted sense of humor, but I watched the shore and the water around me much more closely.

He came from nowhere, his long, ridged back and tail breaking the water just a split second before he struck me. His snout hit me hard in the abdomen, and I started to go down in the water. Then he lunged on top of me, crushing me into the water, and I felt the water move as his jaws narrowly missed closing on me.

The alligator was huge, far bigger than I, and I don't know what thought lurked in his tiny brain. But I knew he meant to kill me. With all my strength, I shoved against his spongy underbelly, trying to push him back. All it did was move me deeper into the water. I couldn't budge his ponderous weight.

Suddenly, he whirled and had me by the arm. I screamed in terror and struck at his head with my gun. It didn't even phase him. He rolled with me, over and over and over until my head spun dizzily and water filled my mouth and nostrils. I managed to cling desperately to the Glock, and my only thought was that he had to stop rolling sometime and I had to shoot him, right in the head if I could.

I felt myself smash suddenly into a tree, and grasping at it with my right hand I pulled myself up, clutching the pistol tightly. I whirled, and as I looked down at the alligator he set himself to roll back the other way. I braced my left foot against the swamp bottom, and my ankle, bad as it was, held me. Just long enough.

I lowered the pistol and fired point-blank into the beast's flat, ugly head. I fired again and again. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he found a surge of strength, and I could no longer hold him. He rolled to my left, and as I went under again I lost the pistol. I didn't even realize it until he stopped rolling. Then my fingers closed--on only water.

Desperately, I got my feet beneath me and shoved upward, trying to break the surface of the water. To my surprise, my head surged free of the muddy swamp, and I gasped for air. I realized my left arm was now loose, and I dove for the cypress tree closest to me. When I made it, I whirled about, searching frantically for the massive reptile. I would kick him in the face. I would give him a battle for his supper like he had never seen before. I would make him sorry he had ever taken a liking to the smell of my blood.

He was still under the water. I whirled this way and that, staring in horror, knowing he would go for my legs. I tried to crawl up onto the tree trunk, but it was too slick, and I just slid back into the swamp. And then I saw him. I saw his shiny green back as it floated to the surface in the halflight. For a moment I thought he was just watching me, but then I saw the blood and tiny brain particles that floated away from his great head. With the awful finality of a Godzilla movie, I realized at last he was dead.

"God, please help me," I whispered, stifling a whimper that rose in my throat. "Don't let me die, please." I thought back to Debbie asking me to take her and the kids to church. I thought about many other times she had voiced the same request, and I had turned her down. I always had other things to do. More important things. Now I laughed dryly at myself. What could have been so important? "God," I said quietly. "I know you're up there. If you let me go home to Debbie and those kids, I won't ever let you down again." I realized how empty that must sound, after the way I had been the last few years. But I meant those words from deep inside. All I wanted was one more chance. . . .

 

 

That's all behind me now. The poachers' camp, Andre's death, the fight with the alligator. Now I stand here alone in the darkness, clinging to the tree, feeling the throbbing in my left leg and forearm. I don't know where my pursuers are, and to tell you the truth I almost don't care. I'm too tired. And I can't even lie down to rest.

I stand here and wonder if the poachers heard me yell in fright when the alligator attacked me. I wonder if they heard the flat clap of that gunshot. Are they still out here? Have they gone back to camp to break it up in anticipation of a force of game wardens returning? I can only hope, but somehow I can't believe. This is no longer a mere matter of poaching. Now they have killed a U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee. They must know they have to kill me or be hunted to the ends of the earth.

I have lost my gun, my flashlight, my matches. Everything but my belt knife and the one I keep hidden in my boot. They're all the survival equipment I have left. My leg is torn, probably infected beyond saving by the filthy swamp water. My arm, though my heavy shirt and coat protected it somewhat, is badly bruised and swollen. It feels like it was nearly ripped loose at the shoulder, and I can barely move it. When I do, I wish I hadn't. It hurts mighty bad.

Suddenly, the sound reaches my ears over the din of the crickets and frogs, a soft swoosh, swoosh in the water. Four times, then a pause. Four more times--another pause. Without thinking, I reach for my Glock, but my hand closes on an empty holster like the dozen other times I have reached for it in the past hour.

The swishing sounds come again, nearer now. I strain my eyes in the direction of the sounds, but the darkness is too thick, black like the inside of a coffin. I can't see anything, anything but the silhouettes of trees against the sky.

Gripping my wounded arm, I try to slip around to the opposite side of the tree. But I stood too long in the same place. My leg won't let me move. I stand still, my back against the tree. If I can't see the hunter, maybe he can't see me, cradled against the black trunk as I am. My only hope lies in silence.

A sudden thought, a terrible memory of words spoken at an employee banquet five weeks ago and shrugged off with a chuckle, creeps into my mind. Someone, maybe Andre LeNoir, told me these people, the Cajuns from the swamp, have the most acute senses in the world. They said they could see in the dark like a cat--maybe better. I feel my stomach constrict, and my heart beats faster. Can this be true about the Cajuns, or just some far-out tale to scare me?

But suddenly I realize it doesn't matter, for the moon I wanted so desperately to see earlier, to guide me through the swamp, now makes its presence known in the east by a shimmering, eerie light over the trees. I know soon it will light up this swamp like a stadium.

The swishing sounds come again, now seeming so much louder than the natural sounds of the night. A 'gator roars in the distance and sends a shiver up my spine. Why is my pursuer so silent? He is yards--perhaps only feet--away. Has he seen me? Does he merely sense my nearness? And how long before the hateful moon breaks over the trees to completely reveal me?

A soft wind passes, rustling leaves overhead, making the cold of my wet clothes almost unbearable. Absently, I watch several fireflies dance, glowing, across the water. Tiny fairies. Tinkerbells. But this is not a fairy tale. My head seems to grown lighter, my legs weaker. The loss of blood is affecting me. The world spins about me. The frogs and crickets chime in together in a muffled chorus, jumbled like an orchestra gone awry.

And then the moon breaks over the cypress trees, its silvery glow washing across the water.

A terrible explosion splits the night. I jerk and slip on the cypress trunk. I fall sideways, unable to catch myself as I see the snowy egret winging away into the night. It was his wings that startled me!

Without even thinking to plug my nose, I plunge into the dark water, and the sickening warmth closes over my head. I shut my eyes and try to fight my way back to the surface with my good arm. I break the water with a splash, sputtering and shaking my head.

The huge, dark mass of the man from the swamp obstructs my view of the moon. He stands over me like an omen of death, his face obscured in shadow. My foot slips out from under me again, and as I go down I hear the muffled rattle of machine gun fire. The water again closes over me, and this time I fight not to rise but to stay beneath its surface. I wrestle with my knife sheath, trying to draw the four- inch Buck knife out. I roll in the water desperately as I clutch the knife in my hand, and instinctively I drive forward against the muddy swamp bottom with both my feet. I don't even feel the pain in my left foot anymore.

I hit hard against something semi-solid, and I strike out with the knife. I strike again, then roll to the side, faintly hearing the rattle of the machine gun and the patter of its bullets striking the surface of the water to my right. I reach out, clutch the thick trunk that is the poacher's leg. I stab again, this time into the meat at the rear of the leg. I feel the sold punch of a rifle barrel against my stomach, and then the man is falling, falling into the water on top of me.

I roll over, coming up on top, and I plunge the blade over and over into the dark, warm form beneath me. The man roars out like some angry beast, an unintelligible sound almost inhuman. His voice gurgles as water runs into his mouth. His powerful arms come up out of the water, void of the machine gun now, and grasp me around the back, pulling me under the water with him. I barely have time to catch a breath.

I struggle and kick, remembering the terror of the alligator attack. My lower right arm is free, and with the knife in that hand I plunge again and again, and then the arms release me, and I break the surface of the swamp, gasping for air.

To my shock, another form looms near, and with an inarticulate curse the second swampman surges closer. I dive for the water, landing on top of the first poacher instead, and as I hit him something hard jabs me in the ribs. I roll into the water, the dead man on top of me, and my frenzied right hand closes on a pistol in his belt.

I am firing even before I leave the water, sending lead in the general direction I saw the second man. When I clear the water I just point the weapon and pull the trigger as fast as I can with the barrel pointed his way. He is only four feet from the end of the pistol barrel.

With a strangled curse, the hunter falls backward into the swamp, showering me with spray. Waves push gently past me then as I intently watch the water where he fell and wait. . . .

A dark, still form floats to the surface of the water, eerie in the moonlight, and far away I hear the distressed cry of a heron. Then nothing more. The breeze picks up, and the Spanish moss sways eerily from the tree branches like living fingers, glowing mysteriously in the soft, silver moonlight. Reeds on the far bank begin to whisper, and I catch my breath. Is something moving there? I remember there were three poachers back in the camp. I strain my ears in that direction.

Then, from somewhere far out in the swamp, comes a low, indistinct hum, like a bee. I listen in suspense for several moments as it grows, then realize suddenly. It's an outboard motor! I stagger toward the big cypress tree, stumbling as I reach it. I fall against its sloping, cold surface and stare toward the sound of the motor.

I guess I knew those poachers have boats. Their equipment is probably better than ours. But I have this sudden feeling God saved me for a better reason, perhaps to take my family back to Montana, and somehow I know that boat will be driven by Bob Fowler and the boys. It just has to be.

My strength ebbs, but I call out as loudly as I can. I hope it's loud enough. I call out again and feel my grip on the tree weakening. I'm sliding down the slippery trunk. My thoughts spin and come to light on Debbie and the children. Home seems so far away. A cup of hot chocolate. A warm shower. Clean sheets. Deb's arms around me, coon hounds baying out in the night. A small child's voice soft in my ear, its breath warm. "I love you, Daddy."

The motor is a loud buzz now, and a searchlight swings into the clearing as my eyes begin to dim. I feel its beam touch my face and hear Bob Fowler's gruff voice say excitedly, "There's Monty!"

I smile weakly and cling to the bald cypress tree with the last of my strength, waiting to be rescued from the black of the swamp.