The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
Big John had been searching Black Water Swamp since he heard the alarm bell that morning and now darkness was falling around him. He feared what the night might bring as he poled his skiff through the black water. As he saw it, his only hope lay in finding Crazy Charley before it was too late.
* * *
Erthele sat up, looking at the wildness around her in the dim light. A slight movement in the dried leaves near her feet caught her attention. Panic raced through her at the sight of a large water moccasin, coiled and ready to strike.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Erthelene remembered what Uncle Mabus had said about snakes. Never move fast. Wait the snake out and try moving away slowly. Erthelene could not bring herself to move. The snake’s flicking tongue paralyzed her with fear.
The muddy pole struck, instantly pinning the snake to the ground and a moment later, flipping the large twisting body into the water. It happened so fast that Erthelene could hardly comprehend it, until she saw Big John’s smiling face.
“Thank God,” she cried, feeling his strong arms encircle her trembling body. Suddenly Big John stood up. “Do you smell that, Miss Erthelene?” he said excitedly. “Someone has a campfire nearby. Hurry, before the light is all gone.”
Big John quickly poled the skiff into an open channel of water, Erthelene sitting low in the front of the small craft. Her heart raced when they caught sight of a campfire glowing in the blackness around them. Ahead was an island illuminated by the firelight. She could make out a small shack beneath a huge oak tree.
“Crazy Charley,” Big John called out as the skiff slid up on the soggy bank, “we’re friends.”
The stooped figure of a man holding a shotgun frightened Erthelene, his matted gray hair hanging down over his shoulders. Big John walked ahead of her, his arms outstretched to the stranger.
“Crazy Charley, it’s Big John from Black Water Lake. You remember me. We fished together one day last year. I was lost and you showed me the way home.”
“Reckon so,” Crazy Charley replied. “A fella big and black as you is hard to forget. Come over by the fire so’s I can see better.”
Big John took Erthelene’s hand as they approached the campfire. “This is Erthelene Carter,” he said. “She’s looking for her boy. He ran off into the swamp.”
Crazy Charley lowered his shotgun and stepped closer to Erthelene. “I found a boy, near dead,” he said after a moment, “but it can’t be her young-un. He’s white.”
Erthelene almost fainted at his words.
“Where is the boy?” Big John asked, taking Erthelene’s hand.
“Yonder, sleeping in the shack,” Crazy Charley answered.
Erthelene was stunned. Oh God, she thought, is Billy Joe only a few feet away?
“Take a look fer yourself. He’s sleeping,” Crazy Charley added, pointing toward the shack.
Big John followed Erthelene, his hand on her arm. The interior of the shack was dark, lit only from the small campfire outside. It took Erthelene a moment to make out the figure of a sleeping child, partially covered by a deerskin hide.
Big John knelt down to look closely. The child’s face and body were covered with caked mud. Big John brushed the hair back from the small face and looked up at Erthelene, nodding his head.
Erthelene lay down beside Billy Joe, gently touching his face and calling his name. Billy Joe’s eyelids opened slowly and a moment later he said, “Mama.”
The fear and anxiety inside of Erthelene ruptured in several heaving sobs as she drew Billy Joe close to her. “Thank you Lord,” she whispered.
* * *
Daylight brought a downpour from dark clouds overhead and the jungle was almost invisible through the rain. Erthelene woke in the small shack with Billy Joe in her arms and Big John sleeping close beside them. It was as if the world had stopped for her. She was completely at peace with the sleeping child and the strong black man lying beside her.
Crazy Charley had managed to keep the campfire going under cover of the huge oak tree. Erthelene could smell the wonderful aroma of frying fish and strong coffee. She had not eaten in two days. The smell of the cooking food also woke Big John. When he sat up, Erthelene took his hand. “Thank you,” she said, “for saving us.”
Crazy Charlie made the announcement as they ate breakfast. “No travelin’ today. Water’s too high. Have to wait the storm out.”
“Good,” Billy Joe answered. “I don’t want to go back.”
Erthelene felt the same way, but she was not an eight-year old. Uncle Mabus was waiting for them, and for better or worse, so was the life they left behind. The downpour continued all day and the black water channels around the island grew deeper and wider.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen