Last Sunday morning, Merle and me went hunting down along the slough where the rabbits and skeeters are nigh on the same size. Most folks were in church, but since God had let the cancer take my Lisabeth last year, me and Him had parted company and I’d become real good acquainted with Mr. Wild Turkey.
Merle had this little tan-and-white beagle, Cricket, that loved to chase rabbits. Briar thickets, canebrakes, nothing slowed that gal down. That morning while she was yipping and yapping and nosing through a tangle of vines and deadfall on the hillside above the slough, Merle and me plunked our asses down on a nearby log to listen at her sing. Mr. Wild Turkey got passed back and forth. Pretty soon a big old swamp rabbit jumped out of the brush pile, hippity-hopped down the hill and was swallowed up in the canes. Cricket shot out of the wad of brambles, and as quick as who done it, disappeared into the canebrake too.
Merle and me didn’t pick up our shotguns and follow; we just sat there on the log, enjoying the warm November sunshine and the hot burn of Mr. Wild Turkey. And the sweet music of Cricket’s baying—that ended with a sharp yelp of pain. Then an ungodly howling.
Merle grabbed his shotgun and took off down the hill. I picked up mine and hotfooted it after him. In between wheezes and gasps, Merle yelled, “I’m coming baby, I’m coming!”
We ran hard but about the time we reached the line of canes, Cricket went quiet.
I grabbed Merle’s arm. “Wait up.”
Red-rimmed eyes all wild and crazy, Merle snarled, “Lemme go!”
Something about that dog’s howling…the likes I’d never heard. I began to feel a little queer-like. “We don’t know what’s in there.”
“Whatever the hell it is, I’ll blast it to kingdom come if it hurts my Cricket.” He yanked free of my hand and slipped into the canebrake.
He sure did love that dog.
Merle stomped through the cane thicket, setting off a racket that was sure to declare to whatever lay ahead that he was coming. My heart beating ninety-to-nothing, I clicked the safety off my gun and followed.
Merle said, “What the hell…” His voice sounded kinda funny. Not mad like it’d been earlier, but maybe…I don’t know.
“Come ‘ere, Les,” he said over his shoulder. “I think…I ain’t sure…” He stepped out on the far side of the canebrake. “Holy mother of God, she’s in there!” And he was running. “Cricket!”
I thought about turning back the way we’d come, getting my tail end outta there. I was feared that there was something on the other side of the canes that I didn’t want to see–and didn’t want it to see me neither. But then Merle set in hollering, and I didn’t have no choice. It was one thing to cut out on a dog in trouble, something altogether different if it be a human person.
Shotgun at the ready, I eased through the canes till I reached the edge, stopped and peeked out between the stalks.
Lordy lordy, till my dying day I’ll never forget the sight of Merle Kilgore waist deep in that mud bog, one hand holding Cricket’s ears above his head–that was all that was left of her–and his other hand beating at the mud that was bubbling and churning around him like boiling water. He was screaming something fierce, and I wondered for a second if somehow that patch of mud was in fact boiling, cooking him right there on the slough bank. Then a big brown bubble rose up and covered Merle’s side, and when it plopped his whole arm was gone.
And he screeched even louder.
I wasn’t trying to be no hero or nothing like it, but I didn’t think any man could’ve stood by and done nothing when a human being–or an animal either–was in that much pain. But still, I didn’t realize I was moving toward him till Merle’s bugged-out eyes settled on me and he yelled, “No! Stay back!”
He sank a little deeper in that mess of percolating brown, and I saw, lordy lordy, the frothy top taking on a reddish color.
I don’t know why I did it, Lord knows you can’t kill what ain’t alive, but I raised my gun and fired into that bubbling mud bog. I took a step closer and let it have it again.
“Les, no!” Merle screeched. “Stay back! It’ll get you too!” Then he was screaming again, the awful sound of it cutting right through me.
Chest deep now. And still he went on squealing like a stuck pig.
I raised the shotgun. Aimed. Put a slug between Merle’s eyes.
Everything went all quiet-like, the only sound that of the rolling, churning mud as it sucked Merle down. His shoulders disappeared. His face. And with a wet plop, the top of his head went under.
The mud bog went still. Slick and smooth, nary a mark on its calm surface. You couldn’t even tell that somewhere down in there was an et up beagle and an et up Merle if it hadn’t of been for the John Deere cap resting on top of a circle of red skim.
Then the darnedest thing happened: an arm came up out of the mud, a pretty arm, sleek and shapely and brown. It twisted this a’way and that, then like it had eyes and had spotted that green cap, the long fingers caught the brim, and both went down. Then it went all shiny and smooth again.
Something about that arm had looked familiar…
I moved a little closer to the mud bog.
The surface rippled like a wind had blown across it. Then slicked out.
And I saw…
I took a step closer.
Movement under that sheen of brown. A face. A smile. And lordy lordy, it was my Lisabeth looking up at me.
Those sweet lips moved. I’ve been waiting for you, Les. Brown arms broke the surface, reached out to me.
I spun around and took off running, not stopping till I reached the truck parked at the top of the hill. Then I drove like the devil was biting at my ass till I got to town.
Nobody believed me. Thought it was the whiskey talking when I busted in the church house door interrupting them flying away oh glory, yelling that a mud bog had et Merle. Sheriff Tackey locked me up in the pokey and let me scream myself hoarse, didn’t even so much as go take a look at that ornery patch of red-slicked mud.
When Merle didn’t show up for work at the feed mill Monday morning people started looking at me kinda funny, and it wasn’t long till Sheriff Tackey showed up at my door asking questions. And when I told him again that a mud bog had et Merle, he just shook his head.
And now, as I sit here on my front porch visiting with Mr. Wild Turkey and staring out into the night, I been thinking on going back. Hell, I can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t do nothing. I keep seeing Merle being et up. I keep seeing Lisabeth, all smooth and brown and healthy.
Now my gut tells me she ain’t in that mud bog, that something else is in there, some unnatural and ungodly thing that’s using my memory of her to draw me in, kind of like I use deer piss to lure in a big buck. But my heart tells me that maybe she is there.
I keep remembering the night she died. I’d been sitting there holding her hand and crying like a baby, and she’d promised that she’d be waiting for me on the other side.
We’d had a good life together, what little we’d had before the cancer got her.
I sure do miss that gal…
Mayhaps I’ll go back down to that mud bog, wade out in it, see what I can see. And mayhaps if I don’t fight it, it won’t hurt too bad.