By Deborah Epperson
Elita backed out of Rat Snake Slough and headed across open water to a slip of land she hoped was Tadpole Island.
After paddling the pirogue into the shallows, Elita jumped out, secured her ride, and headed toward a large clearing. She found a worn tree stump to sit on while studying her homemade map and tried to reassure herself that she wasn’t lost. Maybe it had been five years since she’d been here, but she’d spent her first seventeen years on the Caddo. Mathematical probability was in her favor.
“What’cha doin’ here, Girl?”
Her insides froze. She rose slowly, bringing her gaze to rest on a stringy-haired stranger standing fifteen feet away at the edge of the clearing.
He stood about six feet two, roughly eight inches taller than Elita. A barrel chest, thick waist, and wide hips rested on tapering legs that looked like they should snap in two under the weight of the body they supported. The stranger’s arms appeared too short for the rest of him, as if God had made them for someone else, but stuck them on this fellow at the last minute. No chin to speak of, his woolly dark eyebrows combined to crawl across his forehead. The man’s hands were massive, or at least they looked that way to Elita. That could’ve been because of the shotgun they caressed.
His navy blue tee shirt and rolled-up jeans were stained, but not dirty. An oval white patch containing a silhouette of a dog decorated his black cap. His clean-shaven, round face served as a pale canvas to black eyes that turned down at the corners.
“Why you messin’ around here?” he asked again.
“I was headed for Moccasin Bayou, but took a wrong turn someplace.”
He eyed her up and down before resting the shotgun in his left arm like a mother cradling her child. “Sorry about ya ma.” He shifted the shotgun to his other arm. “How’d she die?”
“A car accident.” Elita took two steps toward the man. “Jax Boudreaux, is that you?”
He nodded. “She were a good woman. Gave me four peach fried pies once. Peach is my favorite.”
Jax’s sudden appearance surprised her. The Boudreaux family kept mostly to themselves, especially Jax, the youngest of the clan. Rumor had it his mother was a quadroon, meaning she was one-fourth Negro, the offspring of a mulatto voodoo priestess from New Orleans and a white sailor. Elita understood how a person of mixed blood would shy away from some of the townsfolk, if you’d call LaSalle, Louisiana, with its population of 682 souls, a town.
Having grown up in Louisiana during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Elita recalled that the public water fountains, restrooms, and doors into the town’s only grocery store had signs hanging over them that read Whites Only or Colored. She figured if people were only one-eighth Negro like Jax, they’d be considered white. But it didn’t work that way in the Deep South. If you carried any Negro blood, you were viewed to be a Colored, arithmetic be damned. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in ’64, the signs came down. But signs are easier changed than minds.
Jax’s older half-brother, Luther, shared the same daddy, but not the same mother. Thus, Luther was viewed as being white. Nobody paid him much mind unless they wanted to hear the latest gossip or buy a mess of catfish for supper. Uncle Matt claimed Luther’s two talents in life were spreading rumors and catching fish.
“What brings you to Tadpole Island, Jax? You got trotlines set out around here?”
He shook his head. “The Caddo talks to me. She told me you were here.”
“I wish she’d talk to me and tell me how I got lost.”
“The Caddo’s mad at you cause you and your ma up and left her.”
Elita didn’t mean to laugh. She did that sometimes when she got nervous.
Jax’s face darkened. “It’s not funny, Girl. The Caddo can be real hurtful to those who upset her. You should know that better than most.”
His insinuation was less than subtle.
“My daddy loved this place. His death was an accident, pure and simple.”
“There ain’t no accidents in the Caddo.” Jax studied the sky. “Dark’s coming on fast. The loup-garou will be prowling soon.”
She hadn’t heard the term loup-garou since leaving the Caddo, but every child raised on the bayou knew about them. Some folks called them werewolves, while others referred to them as rougarous or shapeshifters. Half-human, half-wolf. Whatever the term, they were the most feared of all the creatures rumored to haunt the swamps of Louisiana. Like the werewolf, a loup-garou couldn’t be killed with regular bullets. And when one bit you and tasted your blood, you became one of them.
Even as a child, Elita had never believed in the tales of the Cajun werewolf. Still, the thought of navigating the bayous alone at night made her feel uneasy.
“You’d best come with me, Girl, before the loup-garou finds you here.”
Dammit. She’d only been home a week and already managed to get herself into a bind reminiscent of her early teenage years spent on the Caddo. Why hadn’t she listened to Nettie? Her father had spoken the truth—Elita was jackass stubborn. She was also a twenty-two-year-old educated woman who wouldn’t be intimidated by ancient tales of imaginary swamp monsters. But Shotgun Jax and the alligators that navigated the murky waters of Caddo Lake were not fantasy.
In her haste to make it to Moccasin Bayou, she’d forgotten to get a lantern or a flashlight. Alligators didn’t worry her in the daylight, but at night they could be mistaken for a submerged log. In the dark, she might paddle right over the top of a gator. An angry alligator could flip a pirogue over with one swish of its mighty tail.
“We need to git.” He glanced around the clearing. “We need to leave before it’s too late.”
Jax’s nervousness was catching. You’d think an anxious man holding a gun would be worrisome enough, but no. Her annoyingly inquisitive brain kept wondering what could make a man who knew the Caddo as well as Jax did, a man protected by a double-barreled and no doubt loaded shotgun, so anxious.
She decided to take her chances with the gators. “I can’t leave my grandpa’s pirogue here, so I’ll just drift on home before it gets good dark. It was nice seeing—”
“Be quiet, Girl!” Jax took a couple of steps toward the lake. “You hear that?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“That’s cause the Caddo won’t talk to you, but I hear. He’ll be here . . . soon.”
Elita’s scalp tingled, never a good sign. She’d almost decided Jax was hallucinating when she heard the sound of a boat motor.
“A Mercury engine. 135 horsepower.” Jax shook his head. “You shouldn’t have come here, Girl. You shouldn’t have come.” He stomped off toward the woods.
She watched Jax’s retreat until the underbrush and fading light swallowed him. The precariousness of the situation settled in her chest. Alone, Elita would face the menace that had sent Jax and his shotgun fleeing. Her mind swirled. Should she jump in the pirogue and paddle as fast as possible toward Rat Snake Slough? She couldn’t out-paddle a motorboat, so she might as well get ready for the unknown coming around the west end of the island.
Elita picked up a sturdy limb. Her father had dubbed her Warrior Girl of the Caddo for a reason. This would not be her first fight.
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