Another of Wayford’s redbones, the one missing half an ear, had vanished. He had heard Old Buster on the far side of the swamp, baying with the other three dogs and yelping the loudest. Wayford knew Old Buster was wagging his tail, pawing, biting at the tree roots, and beating a path around the trunk till he could arrive and knock the coon out of the tree.
But before Wayford got there, Old Buster had stopped. When Wayford arrived staggering and puffing at the white oak, Old Buster was gone—solid gone. The other three hounds were circling the oak, yowling and slobbering as if they had lapped up a mouthful of Ms. Lilly’s pepper jelly. The dogs were barking up the tree and glancing at the bayou with their tails tucked between their legs.
Wayford found lots of tracks—heron, coon, boar, and alligator. Dog tracks ran everywhere, but there was no sign of his favorite hound. Old Buster had been his lead dog, the one that would rather starve than leave a treed coon. Wayford thought about how much he loved Old Buster and how he had a way of losing everything he loved. On and off, he wandered in the swamp looking for Old Buster and after two weeks hung his head and trudged home. His was the ninth dog to disappear in Lachooga Swamp.
People invented all kinds of theories to explain their disappearances. Most believed the dogs just ran off, getting while the getting was good. But some folks said Wayford had been and always would be a loser, predestined like a Baptist to heaven or hell; and even a scarred-up redbone knew it and took up with a better man.
It was just as well, Wayford consoled himself, that he had one less mouth to feed. Mostly bones, he was lucky he didn’t have a family, lucky he wasn’t married to Lurleen Waters, the girl who, since his eyes first seized on her in church when she was ten, he believed would be his bride.
Every Sunday for years, Wayford had walked the long way home so that he passed Lurleen’s house. He threw back his chicken shoulders, tightened his chest, and hoped her daddy would wave for him to stop and join the family for dinner.
Mr. Waters probed Wayford with questions. “Wayford, how’s business?”
Wayford would stare at the ground, stir the dirt with his foot, and then remember that a confident man holds his head up and speaks loudly. “It’s good,” he would say.
He had sold Dr. Goolsby’s What Ails You Tonic and had been the setup man for a traveling tent ministry. He had started a co-op through which local women crafted shirts from feed sacks. But his latest venture would fly sure enough. He had purchased a pattern from the Sears, Roebuck catalog and was building a new product that every household would need—a fold-up ironing board. He borrowed his uncle’s ’29 Model T Ford and rattled around the countryside trading ironing boards for chickens or sacks of meal. Dressed in his Sunday overalls and a red tie, his hair greased and parted in the middle, he autoed from house to house knocking on doors.
“What the hell do you want?” the woman of the house would ask, peering through the screen door.
Wayford would remove his hat, hold it in front of him, and smile like a preacher. “Hello, ma’am. May I present you with the one item that will make your life easier, one item you can’t do without? See this piece of wood? It folds out like this here to form the handiest ironing board you ever seen.” He would climb up on the board and bounce up and down with his arms stretched out. “It’s sturdy, too. When you’re finished, just fold it up and put it away.”
“Don’t make no difference anyway, mister. We aint’ got no money nowadays.”
“Oh, I know times are hard, ma’am, but surely you have something you’d like to trade for this fine ironing board. A ham, a bushel of apples or corn?”
“No. Now get off our property.”
“A sack of meal?”
“You deaf, mister? I told you to get the hell out of here. Now get before I fill your hind end with birdshot.”
After six months Wayford had not sold an ironing board and was getting nervous. Before long Lurleen would turn sixteen and might be snatched up by a better man. Wayford knew half the boys in the county wanted to court her. Billy Joe Jenkins, the high school quarterback, delivered milk to the Waterses even though they had their own milk cow. Billy Joe’s daddy was as poor as Wayford’s had been, but Billy Joe was smart; he was heading to trade school.
Wayford needed to demonstrate that he was a superior provider, so he went where he always did when he needed to think—through the mist deep into Lachooga Swamp. He reached the creek, sat down on the bank, and rested his chin in his hands. After awhile he picked up a stick, scratched the dirt, and peered into the brown water as if the answer he needed lay at the bottom.
He glanced back up the trail at the path that snaked through the woods, disappeared into the water, and reappeared on the other side. Suddenly he sprang up, slapped his knee, and let out a whoop. It all tied together—Old Buster, Lurleen, and his financial condition. The thought rose in his brain, revealing itself like red eyes emerging on the surface of the bayou. The woods, the swamp, and the water had always been his salvation. Wayford had an idea.
It took Wayford three days of sifting through his daddy’s old clothes to find the ski mask and pistol. He drove to Catawba Parrish, pulled the mask over his face, wobbled into the Catawba Community Bank, and shoved his .22 magnum in the face of a teller, his hand and pistol quivering. “Give me all your money.” He twisted the mask to see better and waved the .22 at customers and other bank employees. “Down on the floor. Everybody.” The teller dropped onto her stomach, and Wayford turned the gun back at her. “Not you.” He leaped onto the counter, hooking his toe and falling face-first on the floor, and then snatching the cash from all three drawers. He bolted outside, fleeing with $6,000 stuffed under the front seat and eight ironing boards sticking out of the rumble seat.
Wayford lay low. Three months later he walked home from church and Mr. Waters invited him for Sunday dinner. Wayford made sure to look people in the eye when he talked, and to watch for their reaction when he announced he was going to build himself a house. He had purchased the lumber and supplies and had piled them outside of his rental home. “All I need is some land,” he told Mr. Waters.
“The ironing board business must be booming,” Mr. Waters said.
“Yes sir. I pert near sell out every week. Have to spend weekends building a new batch.” Wayford was sure he saw Lurleen smile.
Mr. Waters grinned and slapped Wayford on the back. “That’s good, son. I tell you what. How about the two of us light out coon hunting so we can have ourselves a talk?” He winked at Lurleen.
“Matter of fact, Mr. Waters, I was planning on going tonight.”
Wayford hurried home and rolled the last twenty $100 bills into tiny balls. He wrapped each ball in four layers of aluminum foil, and mixed all the balls with meat scraps he bought from the butcher. He poured the concoction into a bowl and pulled his one remaining redbone from its pen. Wayford knew the dog would gulp every bite. A dog gets hungry when it doesn’t eat for a week.
Wayford returned from the coon hunting without his last redbone. Sheriff Doolittle was waiting, leaning against the hood of his cruiser. “Heard you lost a third dog in the swamp, Wayford. That’s a lowdown crying shame.”
“Make that four, Sheriff. Mr. Waters and I just lost another one.”
Sheriff Doolittle raised his eyebrow and crossed his arms. “Wayford, may I have a word?” He motioned for Wayford to follow.
“I got a call from the sheriff over in Catawba Parrish about a robbery at Community Bank. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“You sure about that, son?”
“Well, I hear tell that the perpetrator was seen driving away with a bunch of lumber in the car.”
Wayford looked off into space and kicked at the dirt. He felt flushed. “Well, Sheriff, everybody knows I sell ironing boards. But there is a big difference between ironing boards and lumber.”
“Wayford, I have a search warrant. I’ve talked to your landlord. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to look around.”
Sheriff Doolittle turned over Wayford’s place but found nothing. “I’m sorry, Wayford. I was just doing my job.”
The wedding was held at the Antioch New Apostle Church. Even though Mr. Waters had let Wayford build Lurleen a house on the back side of his place, Wayford and Lurleen spent their wedding night, according to custom, at the Waters’ house. Neighbors and kinfolks marched around the house, banging on pots and pans, raking rub boards, and ringing bells to kept the honeymooners awake.
Wayford was already lying in wait, naked under the covers when Lurleen ambled into the bedroom with her hair down and wearing a thin cotton gown giving nary a hint at her figure. Wayford grinned like a ‘possum, scooted over to one side of the bed, and flipped down the covers. Lurleen shuffled across the floor and paused at the side of the bed.
“Well, what are you waiting for, honey?” asked Wayford.
Lurleen barely looked up. Wayford could tell she had glanced toward the window.
“You worried about them people outside? They making such a racket they won’t hear a thing.”
Lurleen’s eyes widened. She sat down on the edge of the bed and flinched when Wayford put his hand on her shoulder. Wayford jumped, too. Then he lay back and sighed. “I’ll be John Brown,” he said. “I reckon we ain’t going to have no honeymoon after all.”
When Lurleen and Wayford first drove to their new house on the back of the Waters’ place, he insisted on carrying her through the front door. He led her by the hand through the living room to the kitchen. When she saw the old radio in the living room and the coal-burning stove in the kitchen, she smiled and nearly made eye contact. She rushed to the radio and turned on the switch. Nothing.
“Honey,” Wayford said, “the REA will drop a pole right in the front yard. When they do, we’ll sit by the radio every night.”
Wayford spent three months strolling with Lurleen along Bayou Lafouche. He held her hand and talked a blue streak about how happy he was, about how his life had turned out so well, Soon, he said, she’d be comfortable enough to sleep in their bedroom.
When Lurleen cooked, Wayford always flew the coop. She didn’t say anything, but he could tell she wanted him out of the house while she was cooking supper. Her cooking always took her forever, so Wayford lollygagged along the bayou or down to the Eden Springs store. He would pick up a copy of the Liberty Parish Enquirer to fool Lurleen into thinking he could read.
One Saturday his heart sank when he saw a picture of Billy Joe Jenkins and Harold Weaver on the front page. He couldn’t believe it—Billy Joe and Harold sitting next to Harold’s johnboat at the water’s edge. Billy Joe was holding a 12-guage and Harold was holding with both hands the head of a gator, the likes of which Wayford had never seen. The picture told the whole story. Billy Joe and Harold had bagged the largest gator ever killed in Lachooga Swamp. Wayford needed to get to those boys and find where.
The next day Wayford and Lurleen ate Sunday dinner at the Waterses’ house. “Wayford, did you hear about that gator them boys took out of Lachooga Swamp?” Mr. Waters asked.
“You ever heard of such a thing?”
“I’ve seen a lot of gators down there but nothing like that.”
“The game warden said it measured thirteen feet, four inches.”
“Well I’ll be.”
Mr. Waters rocked his chair onto its back legs and reached behind it to turn on the radio. “Now for the local news,” the announced said. “Two local boys hold the state alligator record, beating by nine inches the record that had stood since 1906. The Game and Fish department said it would study the animal before releasing its carcass.”
Wayford spooned himself another mound of mashed potatoes. “I wonder how them boys pulled that thing into the boat,” he said, and grabbed a piece of chicken from the platter.
Outside the dogs began barking and growling. Everyone craned to see out the window, and Mr. Waters went to the door. No one could hear the conversation, but the tone was somber. Wayford stopped eating and stared toward the door. Mr. Waters was blocking the view. The dogs kept up the ruckus and Mr. Waters hollered at them. When he backed away from the door, Sheriff Doolittle strode through with his hat in his hand. Wayford tensed his hand to stop his fork from shaking.
“Wayford?” Mr. Waters called.
Wayford wanted to scoot back from the table, bolt out the back door, and run all the way to Mississippi, but he had Lurleen and the new house. He forced a smile, wiped his palms on his trousers, and sat up straight. “Yes sir?”
Sheriff Doolittle entered the kitchen, his boots clopping on the floor. Two deputies followed him. “I’m sorry to interrupt y’all’s meal, but, Wayford, you have to come with me.”
“What for, Sheriff?”
“Do you know anything about that gator killed out of Lachooga Swamp?”
“Only what I read in the paper and heard on the radio.”
“Did you have anything to do with that gator?”
“Why, no. Not a thing.”
“The Game and Fish people sure think you did.”
“How could that be?”
Sheriff Doolittle said, “Lurleen, how many ironing boards would you say your husband has made since y’all been married?”
She looked at her daddy and shook her head.
“None? Not a one? He’s in the ironing board business and hasn’t made a one?”
Lurleen stared at the floor.
“What does this have to do with me?” Wayford asked.
“Wayford, you are under arrest.”
“What in tarnation for?”
“It seems Game and Fish discovered why that gator grew so large. It had been feasting on coonhounds. They pulled nine dog collars from its stomach, four of them yours.”
“So why are you arresting me?”
“Because they also found three partially digested hundred dollar bills wrapped in aluminum foil.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“The serial numbers match those stolen from Catawba Community Bank.”
The U.S. Attorney offered as evidence Wayford’s pistol, dog collars, and the decomposed money. The grand jury deliberated for only an hour. Guilty, they said. The court sentenced Wayford to twenty-five years in Angola, and Wayford sobbed and promised Lurleen he would think about her every day and night, that he’d get out and make everything better.
Dressed in black, Lurleen got in her daddy’s Ford. On the way home, she stared out the window and a faint smile crossed her lips. Mr. Waters dropped her off at her house. “Honey, I know this has been tough on you. You come to the house if you need some company, you hear?” Lurleen nodded and kissed him on the cheek.
She sat on the front porch till dark, staring across the fields and rocking when she realized the chair had stopped moving. She felt her bare feet against the planks, felt the breeze flitter up from the swamp, carrying the smell of water and muck. The sun flashed orange and disappeared.
She pulled back the screen door, sauntered into the kitchen, and took two kettles of water off the stove for her bath. She lit a lantern and filled the washtub and when she stepped in, water sloshed onto the floor. She soaked till the skin on her hands was wrinkled and she was just about to get out when she heard the screen door creak open and clack shut. She grabbed a towel and held it in front of herself.
A figure appeared in the doorway. “I’ve been waiting months for this day,” the figure said.
Lurleen clutched the towel tighter and the figure said, “Oh, there ain’t no need for that.” Lurleen couldn’t see his face, but she recognized his voice and his outline. The figure moved toward Lurleen until the lantern illuminated its face.
Lurleen smirked. “Why, Billy Joe Jenkins.” Billy Joe dug something out of both pockets, cupped and extended his hands, and smiled. Lurleen stepped out of the tub, dropped her towel, and slunk to Billy Joe.
Billy Joe opened his fingers, revealing seventeen balls of aluminum foil. “The three I left were too badly digested,” he said. “Besides, I had to leave some evidence. I did just like you said. Here Lurleen, help me unwad these bills.”
Lurleen leaned forward and ran her fingers across Billy Joe’s chin. “Now don’t be in such a hurry, sweetie,” she said. She placed his hands on her hips and wriggled close. “We’ve got all the time in the world.” She took Billy Joe’s hand and led him again to her room.