Crooked Creek Bayou cut through the middle of our land. Sometimes lazy, sometimes brisk, it curved just down the road from our farmhouse. Shortly after turning eleven in July, dressed in denim overalls, blacktop tennis shoes and sporting a burr haircut, I scoured the creek-bank for a nice frog. I found a fat one, chased him through some bushes as he croaked, and snagged him. I climbed back to the road just in time to see a black Lincoln force the town Sheriff's police car from the pavement, down a slope to the edge of the water. It halted not twenty feet from me.
Two men in pin-striped suits jumped out and opened fire on Sheriff Thompson Willis with shotguns. The sheriff's prisoner, the town drunk, Hattie Jo Harris, saw the guns and immediately scrambled from the squad car to run screaming right into the creek, apparently unconcerned it was infested with alligators and snakes. Sheriff Willis crouched behind his car and from the cover it created, returned fire as buckshot pelted the road, the water, and the cruiser. Every window in the car exploded, one after the other. Then, fragments ricocheted; some ripped past me as I stooped in tall grass. After that, I remember nothing except those terrible roars until they stopped.
Why I didn't join Hattie Jo in diving to the depths of Crooked Creek, I'll never know. In the eerie quiet following, I could not move my eyes from Sheriff Willis. He gripped his pistol at his side, stood slowly and stared. I followed his gaze.
The men lay on their backs, each with at least one hole in the forehead and maybe a few elsewhere. Their eyes were open so wide I could see them from where I had crawled. Although I understood immediately the stories I could tell would last all year, I had no idea the horror of it all would affect me in ways I would not grasp for a long time to come.
The sheriff leaned into the cruiser and barked some words I couldn't understand over the cruiser's police radio. He attached the microphone back on its hook, backed out, stood up, dusted off his trousers with the back of his hand and looked around. I thought he sniffed the air a little as he did. He casually strolled over to the bodies. I was amazed. His eyes scanned every inch of the ground before him, and his demeanor was the same I'd seen in folks on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the middle of town. His uniform, undisturbed, showed not a wrinkle. I guess for those very reasons, I joined him as he stood over the fallen men. There wasn't as much blood as I thought, but a growing stench caught me by surprise. It reminded me of gutted deer.
"Why, Will Pierce is that you? You're sure growing up fast. You okay? You see all this?"
"Yes sir, I guess I did. Why'd they do that?" I asked. I continued to stare at the dead men.
"I ain't sure yet, but I aim to know by dark. I'm sure sorry you had to see this. I guess I got some explaining to do to your daddy. You better go get him while I pull Hattie Jo out of the creek before she drowns. Like it or not, I reckon you're my witness and I need your dad's help right away; so hurry Will, hurry."
I reluctantly did as he asked. My new bullfrog escaped during the commotion and I felt more inclined to find him, not my dad. I heard a siren in the distance, and ran home the rest of the way, worried Dad wouldn't be all that pleased with the whole affair.
"Thank the good Lord you ain't hurt, son. Now go inside and lock the door in case there's others around," Dad said. "It's going to be okay, Will, I don't want you worrying. Just do as I say and try to put it all out of your head 'til I get back." Dad tossed his rifle in his old faded Buick, jumped in, and drove off before he got the driver's door completely shut. Dust clouded up behind the rear tires as the Buick fishtailed out of our dirt-packed driveway. I'd never seen that before, not with Dad driving.
I decided to do what my dad said and put it out of my mind. I sat right in the middle of the living room floor and stared at the walls for awhile. The drip from the kitchen sink was a lot louder than usual. Just before I fell asleep, I studied some on the bullfrog that managed to slip away. I figured he would give me trouble when I tried to find him again. I remembered nothing else until just before supper, when Dad pulled me up by my shoulders. "Wake up, son. How are you doing?" I heard a car drive away and recognized the rumbling sound of the old Chrysler police cruiser the sheriff's deputy used to chase out-of-town speeders who thought doing five miles over the speed limit in our town was okay while passing through on the main highway.
Dad put a plate in front of me at the kitchen table, a faded old wooden slab on thick legs. He explained to me the two men were from Memphis and wanted to settle a score with Hattie Jo Hooker, a retired grocer from Redfield.
"But, Daddy, Hattie Jo's last name is Harris."
"That it is, son and Hattie Jo Hooker is almost 80 years old, I'd guess. You figure they'da figured out our Hattie Jo wasn't eve near that age. But, I guess they just wanted to shoot people.
"I don't know, maybe someone, somehow was aware these bums were looking around, and tipped those men that a person named Hattie Jo was locked up in the Humphrey jailhouse waiting to be transferred on over to Crooked Creek. Or maybe they figured it out up in Memphis and came on out this way." Dad put a glass of milk in front of me, and a plate for himself at the other end of the table, facing me. He waited a second or two, and I bowed my head.
After the prayer, he said, "I know I'd think there was only one Hattie Jo in the whole country, much less Arkansas. Whatever, they did, they came on out to Crooked Creek, to their own peril."
No other mobsters bothered to visit our town again. As a result of his heroism in saving Hattie Jo and me, the good citizens of Crooked Creek bestowed the name of "Tommy Gun" on Sheriff Willis.
Even though the matter cost me a bullfrog, I wanted to be a police officer ever since.
I visited that fabled spot at least once a week for the next six years. I don't know why. Each time the chaos returned, the shouts, the sounds, the faces of the men, the terrible gunshots one after the other. For some reason the gunshots penetrated me most of all. Guns were a way of life in our rural setting, but for me, they were put aside. I just didn't want to hear them, and reconciling that with my desire to be a cop was difficult, at best.
Eventually, however, I noticed other things. Shootout or none, when the evening breezes of early June swept across the water, it felt particularly nice, especially when the sun fell behind the trees.
During my senior year, the high school had yet to install air conditioning. After a hot afternoon of intense boredom behind a desk too small, it was easy to see why I enjoyed the soothing, cooling brush of the wind and difficult to understand why anyone wouldn't.
On several occasions, I asked a classmate, Nancy Kuhn, to meet me there, but she eventually set me straight.
"That's a place for boys Will, not girls. You just ought to know better than to ask at all, considering what happened there," she told me. "You might've come to terms with it, but I don't know how. I haven't and I wasn't even there. Come to think of it, it's a little weird you can't tear loose of it."
Then she lightened up on me a little. "Besides, it's more fun to hear your stories about the other things that go on. I like the look you get in your eye when you tell them."
Our parents became friends when we were pre-schoolers. Early on, I teased her often. I guess I didn't know how to handle the unexplainable attraction I held for her since kindergarten. The teasing eventually stopped and during our last years of school we were simply good friends; friends so close, we probably knew more about each other than many married couples. That one idea comes to mind most when I consider the events that followed, and it still hangs in space right in front of me in such a way that I'll never be able to reach out and get the answer I need.
Less than a week before graduation, Nancy decided to accompany me to Crooked Creek, though she gave me the notion she had something to tell me rather than having a need to hang out. I didn't waste time - we drove straight to the spot as soon as she agreed. After parking just off the road, I hopped out and checked there were no snakes to be disturbed, then opened the door of my grandfather's truck. She stepped out, took a deep breath and looked around.
The wind forced her to dig for something in her handbag to tie her hair. Cutoff shorts were popular and the style she wore was breathtaking. The contrast of that against the deep drone of a hidden frog and the rush of water nearby, somehow made her even more striking.
She walked to the side of the road and gazed at a spot on the creek's edge where the frog might have been hiding. "I thought y'all caught that fat, contrary bullfrog last month," she said.
"We did," I said, as she lifted her hair, let it fall, and shook it. The beauty of that simple, wonderful act astounded me even more than the fact Nancy decided to join me on Crooked Creek at long last.
"Well, I guess his offspring's yelling at you for eating his daddy. He sure is loud." She actually admired the sound, a fact I learned some time back, probably in about the eighth grade. She liked bullfrogs and despised the sport of frog-gigging.
"No, it's him," I told her. "I let him go. Just couldn't bear to fry him up after all these years."
She finished her ponytail and said, "Why ain't I surprised? You probably even named him." I could almost hear her smile.
"He's just an old bullfrog. Too tough to eat, anyhow. I guess I would've named him, if I kept him for a pet, but I figured out Crooked Creek needs him more than I do."
"He might get gigged by some old farmer, though."
"Not that frog." I shook my head and removed a faded blue baseball cap. "It took three of us to get him this last time. A farmer or anyone else would move on to the next one."
Nancy asked, "Be sweet and put my shoes in the back of the truck would you, Will?"
After I laid them and my ball cap carefully in the bed of Gramps' pickup, a sky-blue 1953 Chevy, Nancy said, "Climb up on the hood here and lay beside me. My Aunt Nell always says watching the big, red sun go behind the trees purifies the body and soul, and I need to feel good about myself again."
I again got the impression she needed to discuss something personal, but I chose not to ask what she meant. Still, I sensed a sadness and tried to imagine the cause.
She'd recently broken up with some guy from Stuttgart she dated for a few months. He attended a highly regarded private college north of Little Rock and his family was known for putting on airs more than most. She may have had her pride hurt as much as anything else.
We gazed at yellows, oranges and reds as we leaned back against the windshield. At first they intermingled, then the tones became wan and easy on the eye. The majesty of the huge ball of fading color left us without words. Somehow, I knew the setting sun did heal. It cleansed body, mind and heart. The refreshing breeze helped, too.
Nancy lay to my left and to the left of her, Crooked Creek flowed by less than ten feet from the road. I turned toward her. I saw a face I'd studied most of my life, an effort always rewarded. Her porcelain nose uplifted ever so slightly above a wide smile surrounded by lips both sensual and full. Her warm brown eyes, bright and innocent, purified me even more than the setting sun.
Nancy raised a foot in the air, toenails painted a dark blue, and asked me, "You think I should get me one of those toe rings? I hear they're worn by nearly every girl up in Little Rock."
I didn't answer her question. We'd parked along the creek's edge, just down from a wooden bridge which allowed access to Lester Mouser's place. Lester's homestead was a bit like an island because the creek meandered almost all the way around it. Most people avoided it since Lester went crazy a few years back and took to shooting animals for no reason. He even fired at a deputy or two. I thought that might explain what we saw.
A canoe floated under the bridge. Inside, a dog limped back and forth and whimpered. The dog, for the most part a yellow labrador, appeared the only occupant. The creek flowed quickly as it rushed recent rainwater to the Arkansas River.
"Oh, that poor dog. It looks like it's got a broke leg. I've never seen a limp like that. Wonder whose it is? How'd he get in the boat? Don't sit there Will, you're just gonna have to save the poor thing!"
She spoke so fast, I couldn't answer. Considering everything she had said while on the hood of the truck, the chance that Nancy might need a hero seemed high; so I ran to the bridge and jumped in.
Fifty years before, a local bootlegger bought some baby alligators in Grand Prairie, Texas (of all places), and brought them back home. Somehow, they wound up in Crooked Creek and no one bothered to get rid of the resulting colony. They were left alone so long, I think they got the idea they owned the place. That's why when I dove, a couple of daddy gators joined me; one from the side of the creek bordering the road, which blocked any chance I had to escape. At least I forgot to worry about the water moccasins. Some folks claim alligators are only curious, they don't really attack. I knew better from living along the creek and seeing the damage done to several dogs and a neighbor's leg.
Nancy managed to find a rock or two and tossed them into the creek to distract the alligators, but it didn't work. They came straight at me and it didn't much look like they were just snooping around.
The Labrador barked again and again. Each time it ended in a high-pitched sound that actually disturbed the gators just enough to allow me into the canoe before any teeth sank into me.
The dog sniffed at a paddle on the floor of the canoe and looked at me. Then he barked, but without the high-pitched ending. I grabbed the paddle and put it to water. I looked for the alligators, but they had lost interest and disappeared.
The relief was momentary. Unseen from the creek banks and curled up in the far corner of the boat opposite my end, a medium sized water moccasin squirmed and hissed. It looked at me, then must have made up its mind, because it slithered toward me. The Labrador barked insanely, his taut muscles perfected an image of brave defiance as the snake approached.
I slid the paddle underneath the snake and flipped it in a manner similar to my father's when he grilled pancakes over an open campfire. Not very heavy, it flew through the air, splashed ten feet away and tore off toward the shore opposite the truck and Nancy. I think I made it happy.
I worked the boat to the shoreline, stepped out and picked up the dog. He whined and I took him to the bed of the truck.
"Why, he's beautiful," said Nancy. "Too bad he's got a broke leg, though. I'll just have to call him Fracture."
"His leg ain't broke," I told her. "He's snake bit. That moccasin got him, but there's no way to know how long ago it happened."
"Oh, no," said Nancy. "Will he die?"
"Nope," I said. "Dogs handle snake bites pretty well. Sometimes they need antibiotics to help fight off nasty bacteria from the snake. That's worse on dogs than the venom."
"Well, aren't you the biologist! I'm calling him Fracture just the same."
Nancy soothed him with her voice and told him how much she loved him. I thought about finding the moccasin to let it bite me.
Fracture needed Westin Sanderson, my dad's cousin, and a livestock vet who happened to live on Crooked Creek. He loved dogs so I knew he'd watch over our injured friend for a day or two. As we drove away to deliver Fracture to Dr. Sanderson, my unnamed bullfrog bellowed his approval.
Nancy didn't get around to telling me anything, if she intended to at all. I guess Fracture diverted her attention or maybe he was just what she needed. Nancy became much more animated.
She talked a lot on the way back to town and wondered how in the world a snake got in the canoe, but I told her I'd heard of it happening more often than many might realize, especially if such a low cut boat is docked during a heavy rain.
I dropped Nancy off at her house, a stately mansion with seven columns that supported verandahs on the front and sides. It sat on five acres right in the middle of town. Her dad was a banker in Pine Bluff.
"When do you think Fracture will be ready to come home?" she beamed as she asked, and that sent my spirits higher than a football win.
"I'll pick him up tomorrow. He may have a drainage tube coming out his leg to keep the swelling down. You'll need to keep him locked up in your utility room or the pool house bathroom for another day or two."
A fear struck me the alligators may have snatched the owner of the canoe if he was forced to bail out, so I visited the sheriff's office to report the incident.