By John L. Campbell
Cornelius LaBauve was eighty-seven and missing somewhere in the Louisiana bayou. The passenger in the big pickup was worried that the old man had run into a local myth, but the driver had his money on liquor-induced drowning or gators.
Cole Doucet arrived at the LaBauve place around eleven in the morning, carefully navigating the black Dodge 2500 down a long, muddy lane crowded by blackgum trees and green ash on either side, trying not to clip one of the side mirrors. Low-hanging branches scraped across the light bar on the roof, and curtains of Spanish moss trailed over the windshield as he drove down what was little more than a pair of parallel ruts. Even in daylight and over the noise from the bouncing truck he could hear the calls of bullfrogs in the rushes, his window open and his elbow cocked outside. The air conditioner was on low and doing little more than keeping the heavy, humid air in the cab circulating.
Southwest of the towns of Bayou Cane and the adjacent county seat of Houma, this area was part of Terrebone Parish, an expansive wilderness of swamp, wetlands and forest punctuated by small communities. It was the kind of place where the waterways ran alongside the roads, where you could see the boats of shrimpers and oystermen lined up at the banks, or in wider sections, graveyards of submerged vessels, masts and the tops of cabins peeking above the surface. Down here on the southern tip of Louisiana, it was a place which had been ravaged by Katrina not so very long ago. Ten percent of the population spoke French, and the people of the parish were a mix of Cajun, Choctaw and Creole, fishermen and trappers and hunters who lived well below the poverty line.
The LaBauves were these people. Cole passed between a pair of wooden posts which at one time supported a chain between them, but the wood was past rotted and now it just lay in the mud, rusting and sinking into the lane. The Dodge went slowly around a long curve, and then the road ended at a wide, open area of packed clay and black mud. Open wasn’t the right word, though, because the space was choked with junk. No less than half a dozen cars, stripped, without glass and sinking on their rims, rusted away along one edge of the space. Several washing machines sat jumbled in high grass next to a dented refrigerator, and a shopping cart without wheels was filled with bottles and cans. A low, tin-roof shack with a sagging covered porch was at the far end, and to the right, up against the tree line, a 60’s era school bus sat with its once-yellow paint now faded nearly white and streaked with trails of black mold. Fishing gear and frog gigs leaned up against it. As Cole put the truck in park, a broad-chested, black pit bull wiggled out from under the bus and started forward stiff-legged, its flat head low and its lips peeled back from yellow teeth.
He ran up his window and draped an arm across the seat, looking at the dog. It stopped ten feet from the truck and just stood there, menacing. Cole scanned the rest of the area. There were some rusty oil drums, rows of muddy Coleman coolers, a wash line with a few flannel shirts and some shorts hanging from it, bullet-pocked highway signs leaning against the shack’s porch, and a battered outdoor grill with a dozen old propane bottles scattered in the weeds nearby. Near the shack, several lines had been strung between the trees. One held gutted catfish, another had four gator skulls dangling from it, the teeth removed.
Cole tapped on the horn and waited. He didn’t want to try getting out with the pit in the yard, because he’d probably have to shoot it and that would start a whole new kind of trouble. Louisianans, and southerners in general, had a strong relationship with their dogs – sometimes more than they had with their own wives – and had been known on occasion to seek vengeance for the killing of their four-legged companions. He tapped the horn again.
Brick LaBauve appeared from the interior of the school bus and eased down onto the steps, slouching against the frame with his hands in his pockets and staring with open contempt at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries truck in his yard. He spit and folded his arms. Brick was shirtless, wearing cut-off camouflage shorts and muddy work boots. His head was shaved in a close crew-cut, and his muscled upper body was covered in tats, including a big piece across his chest depicting a voluptuous, naked she-devil with wings which stretched back up to his shoulders. At twenty five, he and Cole were the same age.
Cole buzzed down the passenger window. “Brick, need you to chain your dog, son.”
Brick chewed whatever he had in his mouth, probably tobacco, and spit again but didn’t move from the bus doorway. “He ain’t gonna hurt you.”
“C’mon, now, put him on a chain. I’m not going away.”
“Ain’t nothing here for you today, Warden. Wasting your time.”
“Glad to hear it. Means this won’t take long.”
The Cajun sighed deeply, as if asked to perform some herculean task, and then called to his dog. “Cephus! Over hear, now.” The pit bull reacted immediately, trotting to its master and pushing its big head against his leg until Brick scratched at his ear. Then it sat, tongue lolling out and watching the truck while the man clipped a heavy chain to its thick leather collar.
Cole got out and walked towards the dog’s owner, a Sig .45, collapsible Asp nightstick and oversized can of pepper spray all secured to his service belt. The LDWF Enforcement Division had a federal commission, a six month training academy said to rival Marine boot camp (though Cole knew personally it fell short of the curriculum at Paris Island,) and had state-wide jurisdiction not only over hunting, fishing and boating, but rural law enforcement as well. Its agents were trained in tactical night assault, drug interdiction, and could operate boats and quads and even some aircraft. Yet swampers like Brick LaBauve insisted on calling them Game Wardens. It was not a term of endearment.
Bayou people saw the agents as cops poking their noses in a hard-working man’s business, telling him what and where and when, in a place their families had called home since the first white men appeared in the area. A nuisance. An infringement on their personal liberties and right to live in and harvest what they chose from the swamps. And of course, the agents were the enemy when it came to the fact that sometimes a man out here had to do a little more to take care of his kin when times were hard, like hunt out of season or sell some guns or even cook a little meth. Most didn’t, of course, but even the ones not involved in illicit activity had no love for the LDWF.
Brick stepped down from the bus and met Cole half way to the truck. They shook hands and nodded, young men who had known each other on and off over the years, and had even attended the regional high school together for a time until Brick dropped out at sixteen. They had never actually been friends, but there had been no bad blood between them. That changed somewhat as they got older. Cole went into the LDWF right after a four year tour in the Marines, eighteen months of it spent in Iraq, and it didn’t take long before he was reunited with his old schoolmate under different circumstances. Brick LaBauve was one of those who saw the law as an obstruction, something to be considered and then quickly dismissed. An original Crazy White Boy.
“What you want, Cole?”
“Just checking up. If I don’t, you won’t get your licenses back.”
Brick shrugged. His gator tags and buck permits had been pulled after Cole caught Brick spotlighting gators. State law demanded that alligators could only be harvested between sunup and sundown, and two satisfactory inspections by the charging agent – validating that no additional laws were being broken – was required before he could apply for reinstatement.
Cole walked towards the row of coolers and began looking inside, Brick walking sullenly behind him. They held mostly catfish, with a few frogs and a good-sized turtle. Nothing to worry about.
“So what happened with that TV show?” Cole asked, poking in another cooler.
“Shit,” Brick spat into the grass, “those pansy-ass fuckers. Ain’t none of them straight, ya know? Scared of everything.”
A month before Brick was caught spotlighting, a popular reality show about colorful swampers hunting alligators had come to Terrebone Parish, and after some research the directors selected Brick LaBauve to participate. Brick played it up for the cameras, enjoying tremendous pay and basking in the glow of instant celebrity for a short time. Before long, however, what the show’s producers had originally thought to be a colorful backwoods redneck turned into the Crazy White Boy the locals knew him to be. He drove his boat too fast, wrecking it and hurting a cameraman. He drove a quad too recklessly and totaled it, along with another camera. He showed up for filming drunk or high or both, slurring and pawing at the female crew members, picking fights with sound technicians, arguing with the director and blurting obscenities. He told impossible lies about himself and even tried to light up a joint during filming. Most of this could have been forgiven, as reality TV was constantly pushing the envelope, over-the-top made solid ratings, and the truly inappropriate stuff could always be edited or bleeped out. But Brick was also an unapologetic racist, and loud about it, something which didn’t sit well with the network’s executive producer, an African-American who’d had his own life experiences with wild southern boys. Most of the Brick LaBauve footage would turn out to be useless, and the decision was made to cut him loose from the show with a minimal contract payoff. Brick was bitter.
“Them Hollywood faggots just don’t know what real fun is,” he said as Cole inspected the gator skulls on the line. “And it ain’t right to promise a man all manner of things, then take it all away over nothing. Left me piss broke.”
Cole nodded, and decided the directors and producers had gotten off cheaply. Brick was the kind of man who could get liquored up and show up on set with a shotgun to go hunting for camera equipment and windshields and maybe a kneecap or two.
“That’s a tough break,” Cole said.
“Yeah. Fun while it lasted, though. Got myself laid by a makeup girl.” He grinned.
“What about these gators?” Cole asked, tapping one of the skulls.
“Those ain’t mine, they’s Pappy’s. His tags are still good.”
“How’s Pappy doing these days?”
Brick’s eyes cut away and he started chewing a thumbnail. Cole noticed.
A shrug. “Yeah, he’s good.”
Brick’s expression said something else. Cornelius LaBauve (don’t call him Cornelius unless you wanted a broken nose, Pappy will do just fine) was Brick’s grandfather, a crotchety swamper in his upper eighties who had been the kind of hell raiser in his younger days as to make Brick’s antics seem tame. He liked his bourbon and his beer, and even at eighty-seven could be found in the blues taverns, ready to square off with someone who said something he didn’t like. He had less regard for the game restrictions of Louisiana than his grandson did, and no one was going to tell him how to live in his swamp. He was crafty, and kept to the laws when folks were looking. Every LDWF agent knew Pappy LaBauve was always working an angle somewhere, however. At least that had been the case in the past. Pappy’s name came up less and less often these days, and it was generally agreed that age was finally slowing the old man down.
Cole looked at the Cajun for a long moment. The other man glanced up to his eyes, then looked away, still chewing that thumbnail.
“What’s going on, Brick?”
“He in some kind of trouble?”
Brick looked as if he was wrestling with something, and then his shoulders slumped. “I’m worried about him. He’s been gone two days now, took the truck and the boat. Ain’t been back.”
“Where’d he go?”
Brick looked at the enforcement agent. “Out to Devil’s Hole. Said he was going to find Old Nick.”
Cole whistled. “Gone two days to Devil’s Hole?”
“Uh-huh. Too far for me to go walking to find him. He ain’t young no more, Cole.”
The agent looked hard at LaBauve, and saw no deception in him, only concern. He knew it was difficult for a man like Brick to ask for help, but that was surely what he was doing, and a man as old as Pappy had no business in a place like Devil’s Hole. It was absolutely the meanest part of the bayou.
“I don’t see any violations, don’t see any reason we can’t get you your permits back.” He jerked his head towards the Dodge. “What do you say we take a ride out there, see if we can find him?”
Brick squinted. “You bust me and pull my tags one day, then wanna help me look for my Pappy the next? What the hell?”
Cole shrugged. “Enforcing Louisiana law’s my job, Brick, and I won’t apologize for it. You were in the wrong. But that’s the past and this isn’t about that. We know each other, and I know your Pappy.” He stuck out his hand. “C’mon, let me help.”
Brick eyed the agent’s hand as if it might bite him, but then gripped it firmly. “I appreciate it. Let me throw on a shirt and get my rifle.”
Cole shook his head. He didn’t think he had anything to fear from Brick, didn’t think the man had any cause to jump him out in the swamp, but he also didn’t need him to be armed. “I got that covered.” In the rack against the Dodge’s back window hung a Remington 12 gauge and a Sig .223 assault rifle, something the department had begun issuing to agents since Katrina. “Let’s go see what Pappy’s up to.”
It took an hour of traveling back roads, transitioning from asphalt to gravel to dirt to ruts, and now they bounced along a narrow track with high grasses and views of blue water to the left, and sprawling black willows on the right, growing half in and half out of stagnant pools. A flock of low-flying cranes swept by in the distance, their white a startling contrast to the jungle-like background, graceful and seemingly slow as their big wings beat at the humid air. A few fishing shacks were nestled among the willows here and there, decaying, thrown-together places with bowed porches and crooked docks right on the water. A few dogs and chickens could be seen, but no people. They would all be out on the water, making a living.
Cole braked as a family of nutria scurried from the grass on the left and crossed the road in front of the LDWF truck. Both men watched the housecat-sized, oily furred rodents disappear into the brush, hairless tails following after.
“You getting any nutria these days?” Cole asked, starting the Dodge moving again.
“Hell yes. Since ya’ll pulled my tags and licenses, been the only way to make any money. I don’t eat ‘em, though. Ain’t sunk low enough to eat swamp rat. Pappy has a taste for ‘em.”
Nutria was a breed which landed somewhere between rat and otter, an aquatic rodent with webbed feet and long orange teeth, brought to the U.S. for the fur trade long ago. Like nearly every other imported species, it had found its way into the wilds and thrived. When the market for furs died off in the eighties, the nutria grew unchecked and flourished in the food-rich environment of the bayou. Breeding as often as common rats, they fed on roots and vegetation, the very structure which held the bayou together, and Cole’s agency estimated that as a result, twenty-five miles of Louisiana wetlands disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico each year. They were considered the most invasive species in America.
“Couple weeks ago, got me a hundred of them little bastards in one day. That was a damn good day.”
Cole agreed that it was a nice payday. Nutria were such an infestations that the LDWF paid five dollars for every nutria tail brought in, and was extremely generous in granting no-bag-limit licenses to locals. Brick’s claim of a hundred in one day seemed a bit inflated, though, even considering the out-of-control population.
“I heard the Chinese was interested,” said Brick.
“Yep. The mayor of Beijing came to Baton Rouge to look into importing them as a meat source. Nothing ever came of it, though.”
Brick laughed, a harsh bark. “Goddamn Chinese’re stupid enough to invite them little fuckers into their country, I say let ‘em take all the swamp rats they want. See how they like it.”
Cole nodded as he drove, unable to argue with Brick’s simple logic. And that was the one thing which made this job difficult sometimes. He had grown up with these people, he understood the bayou and their way of life, saw how hard they had it. His training and schooling had well-educated him on the need for conservation, and his loyalties were firmly in place, but it was still tough to tell a father trying to feed a family of six that the state was taking away his boat for thirty days and suspending his tags because he had shot a gator an hour after sundown. It didn’t help that he knew most of them by their first names. He had to enforce the law, it was something he wanted to do and for which he had volunteered, but he couldn’t help quietly believing that there was more than enough deer, opossum, fish and reptile meat in the bayou to feed these simple folks and their families, and still have plenty left over to supply New York City with alligator skin for their shoes. And he couldn’t really picture anyone on Park Avenue wanting to dine on opossum.
The wetlands on the left were increasingly broken by submerged stumps and bald cypress, thickening into woods once more, the overhead canopy steadily blotting out the sun. They were getting closer to Devil’s Hole, or at least one of the few places that part of the bayou touched land.
“What was Pappy doing out here, Brick?”
The other man shook his head. “Got it in his head he was gonna find Old Nick.”
“He believes in Old Nick?”
“Damn straight,” said Brick, “that big bastard’s out there too, I guarantee.”
Cole looked sideways at his old schoolmate and tried a smile. “C’mon, really?”
“You can think whatever you want, Warden, (they were back to that now) but he’s real, and he’s out there. A hundred years old, raised from an egg but escaped to the bayou when he was a baby after he killed some little girl on a farm. Been living in Devil’s Hole ever since.”
Cole said nothing. He knew the legend.
“I’m just hoping Pappy nodded off drunk in the truck, and didn’t try to go out after him. He’s always saying if anyone could ever find Old Nick, he could.”
The wildlife agent didn’t want to get into a debate over a mythical swamp monster with a hot-tempered redneck, and didn’t bother to argue that the local reptiles were dangerous enough for an eighty-seven-year-old without bringing Old Nick into the equation. The American alligator averaged eleven or twelve feet long, and weighed between three and eight hundred pounds. Normally they steered clear of humans, but they were also opportunistic, and Devil’s Hole had more than its fair share of the animals. An old man struggling to put an aluminum boat in the water might prove tempting for an attack.
“I’m sure he’s fine, Brick. Probably be more pissed off that you brought a lawman to come look for him.”
Brick grinned. “He would be at that. But I’ll take the sharp end of his tongue and a slap up-side the head so long as I know he’s okay.”
They drove deeper into the darkening bayou.
Old Nick wasn’t an alligator. He was said to be a “salty,” a saltwater crocodile native to Northern Australia, India and Southeast Asia. Salties were the largest reptiles on earth, and Old Nick was said to be a real monster, between twenty-three and thirty feet long, weighing in at two tons, capable of pulling boats under and biting the tailgates off pickup trucks, unaffected by gunfire and able to choke down a full grown man. The tales of Nick’s size and exploits enlarged in direct proportion to the amount of beer being consumed, and Cole had once even heard an enforcement agent quietly say that he had seen Old Nick kill a man twenty years earlier, but had been unable to get off a shot. Swamp tales.
Cole didn’t believe in the legend himself, but there was just enough truth to make it plausible, and that was why the story lived on. Salties lived as easily in freshwater swamps as they did in open ocean. They were apex predators and masters of ambush, aggressive, territorial and physically powerful. They could swim for short underwater bursts at up to 18 mph, bursting onto shore even faster, and by using their immense tail could propel themselves their full length vertically out of the water. And they were smart, believed to be smarter than lab rats, and capable of learning. A salty who had survived over a hundred years would be a crafty predator indeed. If one existed in Louisiana, Devil’s Hole would be the place for it; infrequently visited, dark and filled with prey, undisturbed and remote. The perfect lair for the undisputed King of the Bayou.
But Old Nick was a legend and nothing more. No matter how stealthy the creature might be, no matter how impassable the bayou could get, there was simply no way a reptile the size of a bus could have avoided being spotted and hunted down, or even photographed after all these years. Hell, something that big could be seen from the air! He was more elusive than Bigfoot. Of course that didn’t stop the airboat tour guides from spinning yarns about him for the tourists, that was good for business. And the nature channels regularly came down to do stories on him, interviewing locals who had “lived to tell the tale” and taking pictures of plaster casts of his supposed footprints and doing extended filming of the creepiest sections of the bayou. T-shirts and television and tall tales. But no giant crocodile.
The sides of the road grew marshy and spotted with pools of standing water as the bald cypress trees closed in, branches heavy with gray-green clumps of Spanish moss hanging limp in the close air. It was a twilight place, the sun neatly tucked away above, and the low light intensity resulting in little undergrowth. Between the trees was flat mud which led to the water. A thick cottonmouth wriggled across the track in front of the Dodge.
They found the truck a few minutes later, parked where the road simply stopped in the trees, only a few yards from the water’s edge. A trailer was hooked up to Brick’s old Ford, and an aluminum fishing boat was still strapped into its mountings. Cole stopped and Brick jumped out at once, running up to the cab to look inside, then turning in a circle and yelling, “Pappy! Pappy!”
Cole got out and checked the truck as well, finding the cab empty, crushed beer cans and filthy overalls on the floorboards. He had so wanted to find the old coot passed out in the front seat with an empty bottle. The boat still on its trailer wasn’t a good sign, either. He looked out into Devil’s Hole, a deep, shadowy expanse of algae-filmed water, rotting stumps and cypress vanishing into the distance. Nothing moved to disturb the surface, and though mosquitoes drifted through the air, nothing else did. There were no birds, no croaking bullfrogs. It was a silent place.
Brick climbed up into the back of Cole’s Dodge and stood on the equipment box, cupping his hands to his mouth and yelling, “Paaaaappy!”
Cole looked at the muddy bank and shivered despite the heat. Even in the half-light he could see a pair of bare footprints making their way from the Ford straight to the water. The old man was a suicide, had finally lost his mind and walked straight into the swamp. Cole had no delusions about what would have happened next.
“Brick,” he said quietly, turning to look at the other man, “I think we…”
His companion was sitting on the Dodge’s equipment box, swinging his legs comfortably against the side of the truck, looking at him with a weird grin.
Old Nick exploded out of the water and onto the bank at just under twenty mph, hitting the back of Cole’s right leg with open jaws and snaggled teeth. The impact threw him face-down in the mud and he screamed as the croc whipped its massive head left and right and tore his leg off at the knee. It snarled, deep and throaty, advancing on the prone man. Cole flipped onto his back and used his arms to scramble away, dragging his stump, slipping into shock as he watched it spurt blood across the croc’s snout. Thirty feet at least, his brain screamed. Two tons easy. Three feet tall at the shoulder.
It bit down on his remaining, kicking leg, crushing the shin bone and making him scream, and then it started backing rapidly towards the water. Cole clawed for his sidearm, got it free, and then lost it in the mud when the croc gave him a sharp jerk. It shook its head and tore away his other leg.
“Brick help! Shoot it shoot it shoot it help me heeeelp!”
The salty, mottled black and green, covered in leathery scale ridges and looking very much like the dinosaur it was, gulped down the leg, the foot still wearing its boot. Then it looked at Cole and hissed, staring with one big blue eye, and one which was a milky, blind orb.
“Don’t think I can help ya, Warden,” Brick said casually, pulling out a tin of chewing tobacco and fingering out a large dip, shoving it into his mouth. “You’re on your own.”
Cole started pulling himself backwards again, both severed legs pumping blood and his vision starting to gray. “Brick, I…I…help me. Please!”
The giant salty began walking towards him, its bulk swaying side to side.
“Nutria ain’t the only nuisance out here for us simple folks. Nuisances gotta be put down.”
Cole didn’t take his eyes off the advancing croc as he struggled to back up. “They know I’m here, Brick.” His voice was breaking, like high-pitched puberty. “They know I went to see you.”
“Sure, your buddies know you come out to check up on me, I believe it. But you didn’t use your radio to tell no one we was coming out here. I’ll say you come seen me, said I was gonna get my permits back, then went on your way. Pappy will swear to it, too. Don’t know what happened after that.”
The croc opened its mouth with a grumble.
“Brick, please…” Cole’s strength was gone, and he could no longer crawl backwards, only lie propped-up on his elbows, wheezing for breath as he bled out, turning the black mud a glistening red.
“They’ll find your truck eventually. Then it’ll be, ‘No sir, I don’t know what made him go out there. Didn’t say nothing to me.’” Brick chuckled. “They’ll give your mama a flag and maybe put your picture up in the county building.”
“Goddamn it Brick help me!”
Old Nick struck then, lunging forward and snapping down onto Cole’s torso, cracking bones, making him babble and shriek before his air was cut off, and then swiftly turning and trotting back into the black water, Cole flopping in his jaws. The surface boiled as Nick rolled in the shallows, finishing off his prey and tearing it apart. Within minutes the creature was gone and the rippling water began to still.
Brick LaBauve sat on the LDWF truck for an hour, swinging his heels and spitting tobacco into the mud, humming and watching the water. In time the surface broke again, a bald head followed by narrow shoulders, the pale, thin body of a naked old man, wet and muddy. He picked his teeth as he walked to the Ford and began dressing.
Brick hopped down and climbed into the Ford’s driver’s seat.
“You brought a warden out here, boy? Pretty damn reckless.”
A shrug. “They’ll think a gator got him.”
Cornelius LaBauve looked at his grandson with one eye blue and winked with the milky white one, smiling. “Close.”No tags for this post.