fiction by Phil Benton
I’ve been playing around with a new idea for my second novel. I’ve never done a dystopian theme or anything set in Louisiana. My reading lately has taken me in both these directions and I’m fascinated with the beauty of the Atchafalaya Swamp. With that said, here’s a sketch I’m hoping to flesh out into my next full length book.
The cool morning air whistles through the truck’s side window vent as it bounces along the gravel road. Joe, the passenger, makes another attempt to grab a sip of coffee between ruts. The pick-up’s aging suspension groans as the front wheel finds another hole, sending Joe’s coffee down the front of his cammo t-shirt .
“Goddangit Gene! Would ya slow this sucker down?”
The driver grins, keeping his eyes focused on the winding path ahead. “Relax Joe, a little spilt coffee’s the least of your fuckin’ worries. You don’t need no coffee anyways. It gives you the shakes. Ain’t that what you always complain about when we’re at the shootin’ range?”
Gene reaches in his shirt pocket, retrieves a joint and offers it to his passenger. “Here, fire this up. Good for what ails ya”
Joe snorts in disgust as he rolls down his window and flings the half full cup out the window. Glancing at the twisted reefer, he shrugs sheepishly. “I ain’t never took no pot before.”
“What did you just say?” Gene attempts to contain himself. “It ain’t a suppository stupid. You smoke the shit.”
“OK, smart ass, I ain’t never smoked no fucking pot.”
“Well, maybe you should start.” Gene gives his new partner a sidelong glance and shakes his head. “We’ll see how you feel after we get through with this job. Hell, you may be beggin’ me for this before the day’s through.”
Gene pockets the joint and grabs the steering wheel with both hands as they bounce through the rock hard ruts in the road. Slowing down, he makes a hard right between two trees, plunging them into darkness down a heavily wooded, sandy path. The orange and purple hues of sunrise over the Atchafalaya River Basin afforded the pair at least some light out on the main road. Now they are forced to creep through the marshy under brush and towering hardwoods in virtual blackness. Not wanting to be seen from a distance, Gene relies on the dim glow of his parking lights to stay the path. They proceed in silence.
Joe grips the door handle for security and attempts to regulate his breathing. Hailing from West Texas, the swamp is foreign to him and more than a little scary. He’s heard his share of bayou horror stories, most of which involved gators and cottonmouth snakes. Unlike Gene, his new partner from across the river in Mississippi, Joe feels more lost here that he did in Chicago. At least there, his only worries were bullets and IEDs.
“You sure you know where the hell you’re going?” Joe asks.
“That’s why I’m here hotshot. You know how to use that m40. I know how to get your ass through the swamp to where you need to be.” Sensing his partners apprehension, Gene adds, “Don’t worry ‘bout critters now. I picked out plenty of nice little hunting blinds in the swamp. We just slide the pirogue into the stumps and brush. You’ll have protection, a wide range of sight, and won’t even have to get your pretty little feet wet.”
Joe jerks to attention as, if exiting a tunnel, the pickup emerges from the trees up on a grassy levee. Comforted a bit by the dawn’s hazy light, Joe attempts to get his bearings. On either side of the levee, he can see a low lying swamp. The standing water is covered with a green algae slime that cast a strange glow in the day’s first light. The cypress trees hang gloomily in the fog like ancient gods with arms outstretched, demanding fare for safe passage. Joe bounces from his seat as the old pick-up lurches, hitting a spongy section of marsh grass. Gene expertly yanks the shifter into low and climbs up a low grade onto a sandy path. “Ain’t too much further now”, he says.
Clint’s houseboat sits, surrounded by a small grove of young cypress trees, in the Atchafalaya Swamp. Most mornings find him on his makeshift pier admiring the sunrise. This morning is no exception. Placing his 30-30 rifle across his lap, he leans back in his plastic cafeteria chair. Placing both hands behind his head, Clint looks east to witness the first signs of sunlight peeking over the trees. His “houseboat”, perhaps more accurately described as a floating shack, has been his home since the Federation’s Relocation Initiative. He knows he will have to relocate again soon. The Army keeps pushing further into the Bayou, rounding up the hold-outs, like Clint, that refuse to surrender. Ever since the Acadian people migrated to these swamps 300 years ago, his family has called it home. And, just like his ancestors, Clint refuses to bow to any government’s so-called eminent power.
Clint lived in Pierre Part until the Big Crash that led to the Federation’s takeover. The mandatory gun surrender and Rural Relocation Initiative soon followed. Entire villages, like Pierre Part, now stand empty. Without homes and a means to make a living, families had to go where the Federation officials told them to. Clint, however, refused to surrender his weapons; choosing instead to retreat into the Atchafalaya swamps where food, and hiding places were equally plentiful. With him, came plenty of like-minded Cajuns hold outs. Armed and organized by rugged outdoorsmen like Clint, the “Cajun Militia”, as they call themselves, rule the Swamp.
The welcome morning chill surrenders to the heat of the rising sun as Clint waits for his friend. The first drop of perspiration beads on his forehead as he squints his eyes and peers anxiously down the swampy channel. Junior should be here by now. Where the hell is that boy? Clint and Junior rely on low light and morning fog for cover against helicopters and reconnaissance planes that patrol the Swamp basin. The two men usually check their traps and lines early in the morning, then retreat deep into the wooded areas during the day to prepare food and socialize. Militia members operate in packs of four to six members throughout the vast swamp basin and communicate with battery powered walkie-talkies. No large force of men can penetrate their territory without everyone being alerted. Each pack has an elaborate plan of escape if threatened by Federation forces. Worried now, Clint rises from his chair to retrieve his communication handset.
Joe sits, crammed into the stern of the pirogue. Gene stashed the boat earlier under a pile of brush at the edge of a lake that provided easy, yet inconspicuous, access into the deep swamp. Under cover of tall cypress and willow thickets, Gene maneuvers the craft through the black water. Powered by an electric trolling motor, they silently maneuver their way deeper into the decaying bog, dodging armies of cypress knees and curtains of low hanging vegetation. Cursing the heat and stench silently, Joe can no longer contain his curiosity. “Can you please tell me how the hell you know where you’re a goin’?”
“Good intel, maps and recon my man. I’ve been studyin’ on this for near a month. Ya see, a surveillance helicopter spotted some signs of life outside a houseboat moored up in a wooded bayou south of here. I used maps to plot the best way I could get to it unseen. After a couple of trips I got to about 400 yards of the houseboat by hangin’ real tight to the shoreline in the thickets. Sat out there with a camera and telescopic lens for damn near half a day getting my ass eat up by flies and mosquitos. Damned if I didn’t spot him finally. He gets in and out through a thick cypress grove slick as a ghost. Hell, I’d a probably missed him if he hadn’t come out the front door to grab a chair. I got a clear picture of him then.”
“Huh, why is one damn fella so important? Hell, ain’t nobody left down here in these parts. Looks like one man living in the swamp like goddam Sasquatch wouldn’t make no difference to nobody.”
Gene smiles. “Well, my boy, that’s why you don’t get paid to think. I took the picture to my Captain at Southern Command and, turns out, old Sasquatch is really Clint Rimbaut. Ever heard of him?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
Gene raises his eyebrows at this. ”Damn son, guess y’all didn’t have TV in Bumfuck, Texas. OK, before the Crash, our boy Clint had his own TV show. He was a big time huntin’ and fishin’ guide in these parts. People used to pay big money to hunt hogs and gators down here and he was known as the Swamp King. I know you remember Wal Marts and Cabela’s stores. They used to sell everything from doormats to bed sheets with that fucker’s name and face on ‘em. Anyways, when everything went to shit, and the Federation troops came to relocate Southern Louisiana, he was nowhere to be found. Bunch of others went missin’ too. Big boys at Southern Command figure there may be a hundred or more hole up out here in this swamp basin and all of ‘em armed to the fuckin’ teeth. They figure old Clint to be one of the leaders since he’s king of the swamp and all. We take him out, search his place and maybe we can find some intel on the rest of these renegades. Command don’t want to just come in with guns blazin’ till they find out what we’re up against. So, my friend, that is what we are gonna do. You and me, and others like us are soldiers against terrorism. People with guns that threaten the freedom of God fearin’, law abiding citizens are terrorists. People like Clint and his buddies are no different than the ones you been fightin’ in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. They just ain’t quite as “militant” shall we say. You follow me big fella?”
Joe tinkers with the tripod he’s assembling and ponders a bit before speaking. “Gene, the part I don’t get is…well, these old boys ain’t hurtin’ nobody.”
“Not yet, but they will Joe. They are outlaws to the Federation and that makes them your enemy too. They’ll shoot you and feed you to the gators. They got guns and most of ‘em can shoot good as you. So, you need to tighten your ass up and do your job. Freedom ain’t free my friend. You got me soldier?”
“Now, start assembling that weapon and shut the fuck up. We don’t have too much farther to go and we’ve got to be real quiet if we want to get outta this fuckin hell hole alive. We’ll be gettin’ outta these trees soon and hit some open water. Clint’s shack gonna be up the bayou about half a mile on the south shoreline in some trees. We gonna hang in the trees on the north shoreline till we get about 400 yards out. Water gets wider there and you’ll have a clear view of his front porch. It’s fixin’ to get light so you’ll have a sweet shot if he steps out the front door.”
Joe feels the familiar tingling sensation that precludes a kill. “What if he ain’t there?”, he whispers.
Junior Guidry lies on his stomach peering up over the bough of his fiberglass pirogue. Padding though an adjacent marsh he detected movement through the trees across the bayou and immediately grabbed his low light binoculars. Through the low lying fog he can make out two shadowy forms snaking their way east through the cypress stumps. He curses under his breath knowing he can’t get a shot at them and, since they have a trolling motor, can’t keep up either. Reaching back, he fumbles under the boat’s seat grabbing his walkie-talkie. Finding Clint’s frequency he speaks in a rasping whisper. “Hey Clint, you there?”
“Yeah Junior, where you at boy? It’s getting light.”
“We got trouble dude. Two men in a pirogue headin’ east your way on the north shore of the bayou. Guy on the bough got a rifle with a scope. I’m about a half a mile out and they about 300 yards ahead of me. You better lay low.”
“Roger that. Hey, you stay back but keep comin’. They won’t get by both of us. Alert the packs. Tell 5 and 6 to head this way for back up. Put the rest on standby for bug out. Oh, and keep your eyes peeled for any more boats.”
“Copy that. Keep me posted Clint. This could be tricky.”
Clint pockets his handset and makes a dash for his cabin door. Inside, he throws his 30-30 on the bed, opting for a higher caliber. From under the bed, he retrieves a case containing a 50 caliber sniper rifle. Deftly, Clint assembles it and mounts it on a table under the open side window facing west. He then pushes out the window’s screen and closes the curtain to leave about two inches of clearance on the left side of the window. Pulling up a chair, Clint positions the rifle barrel through the crack in the curtain, peers through the rifle scope, and waits for a target.
With the cover of hanging tree branches, Junior stops paddling and picks up his binoculars. Scanning the opposite side of the shoreline, he spots the pair of intruders as they slide behind a fallen cypress. Moss and dead branches are clumped around the tree, obscuring his view. When they don’t emerge from the other side, Junior immediately radios his friend.
“Clint I got ‘em in sight. They’re about four hundred yards west of you behind a dead cypress tree on the north shoreline. They’re probably settin’ up there for a shot. I hope you’re out of sight.”
“Can’t see them Junior, but I got the tree in sight. Just one shooter?”
“Yeah, from what I can tell, but hey man, maybe I should start shootin’ and flush ‘em outta there.”
“Not yet Junior. I don’t want to fire anymore shots that we have to. There might be others out here and that would just draw them to us. I’ve got a silencer on this 50 cal, and I’d just as soon take him out with this. It’s getting light anyway. I should be able to pick up some movement in that thicket. You and the others just be ready if they turn tail and come your way. You stay in contact with the others. I’m OK.”
“Keep this dang boat still Gene. When he comes out I want to get a decent shot.”
Gene tries to steady the pirogue against the truck of the fallen cypress. “You see any movement in the shack?”
Joe has his rifle set up with the tripod resting on the boats bough. He is scoped into the front screen door of the shack but has yet to detect any movement inside. “Not yet”, he says, reaching into the brush with his left arm. “ I just got to get these damn sticks outta my way. If I could just”…
Gene has no time to register why the boat is lurching forward into the pile of dead branches. As he instinctively reaches to steady the boat with his right arm, Joe’s body is falling backwards toward him. Joe comes to rest on his back in the bottom of the boat staring up at Gene through lifeless eyes. As he wipes the back spatter from his eyes, Gene focuses on the gaping hole where Joe’s forehead used to be.
“Oh shit!” Gene gasps for air and whirls around to start the trolling motor before realizing he can’t lose his cover. Whatever, and whomever just did this to his partner is certainly no match for the 45 caliber handgun at his side. He scrambles over Joe’s body to grab the m40 but doesn’t dare try to return fire from the same position of his partner. Yanking the rifle from its tripod mount, he throws a leg over the side of the pirogue. Touching bottom, he hoists himself, rifle in hand, into the black bayou water. If he can get to the bank, he’ll try to make a run for it through the heavily wooded marsh. A dead branch above his head explodes as a rifle shot stops him in his tracks.
“Drop the gun or die!” a voice from behind him shouts.
The m40 sinks into the murky water as Gene slowly raises his arms above his head.