Manly Wade Wellman - Novel 1951, page 1
HAUNTS OF DROWNING CREEK
MANLY WADE WELLMAN
TO MY FRIEND
EUSTICE H. MILLS
A Tarheel born and a Tarheel bred, who helped me in the happy business of becoming a Tarheel myself
“Here’s to the land of the longleaf pine,
The summer land where the sun doth shine,
Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great—
Here’s to ‘down home,’ the Old North State.”
SHADOWS AND SNAKES
DROWNING CREEK crawled here and there through the sweet gums, the junipers, the cypresses.
Drowning Creek writhed like a great, dark snake of water. Its coils looped far out to left and right of its course, wriggling between high trunks, heaps of fallen logs, jumbles of weeds and bushes, knotted spreadings of roots. Driftwood heaped its banks, thickets pressed it, and here and there the tricks of an ever-changing current had dug away the earth at water level to leave shelves of grassy mud hanging shakily over hidden depths.
And into Drowning Creek drained countless smaller trickles and sloughs from both sides, watering the roots of still othei tree clumps and thickets, great and small, so that a wide, squashy-floored wilderness enclosed the stream for mile upon mile. Hardly anyone ever saw the creek, except occasional glimpses from the roads cut here and there through the timber and filled in with clay and gravel.
On this early morning in September, fall would hang in the air up north. But here was lazy, bright warmth and thick, strong greenery, and no hint of even the mild winter of lower North Carolina. Along one of the country roads drove a yellow pickup truck, down toward where Moore County’s southern border was marked by Drowning Creek, and an ancient bridge of rusty-bolted iron and plank flooring crossed over. A solitary fisherman in old shirt and khaki pants, with a battered straw hat cocked on his head, sat on the bridge and looked up as the truck parked.
Out hopped two healthy youngsters of sixteen, to lift from the truck an old canoe, recently repainted a bright green. The boys wore swimming trunks and moccasins, and presented a contrast in shape, size, and complexion. One was sturdy and ruddy-skinned, from belt to shock of sun-scalded fair hair. His taller, leaner companion was dark-haired, and every visible inch of his skin was deeply tanned.
Hoisting the canoe by its ends, they lugged it carefully down the slope from the high-built road and set it by the smooth, dark waters at a point just downstream from the bridge.
“Goin’ to fish from that, boys?” called the man on the rail. “Don’t scare away the ones that won’t bite.”
“We won’t be here long, sir,” called back the stocky, fair-haired one.
The fisherman studied them. “Hey, son,” he said, “aren’t you C. C. Markum’s boy, Jebs?”
“That’s right, Sam,” said a man’s voice, and a tall, straight old gentleman emerged from the truck. He moved, with a slight limp, toward the bridge. “I’m Major Hunter. That’s Randy Hunter, my grandson, down there with Jebs Markum.”
“I remember you, Major,” nodded the fisherman. “Known who you were since I wasn’t any older than the boys there.”
“Randy, this is Mr. Sam Tolliver,” said Major Hunter as his tall, dark grandson scrambled up to road level, followed by Jebs.
“Glad to meet you, Mr. Tolliver,” said Randy, his white teeth flashing a smile in his tanned face. “As Jebs said, we won’t bother your fish any longer than we can help.”
And he and his heavier, blonder companion rummaged again in the truck, lifting out bundles and parcels. Major Hunter had strolled on to the bridge, favoring slightly the artificial foot that replaced the one he had left, in 1918, on a French battlefield.
“Don’t be mystified, Sam,” he said. “Randy and Jebs are just going to float down the creek to Lumberton.”
Sam Tolliver looked interested. “Float down the creek? I’ve heard tell how folks did that years back. But we had a better channel then, and the canoe club over where Camp Mackall Reservation is now. Nobody’s floated the creek since about when you went off to the First World War, Major.”
“Talk about those old canoe trips has stirred up my grandson ever since he came to live here with me last spring,” the Major explained. He gazed at the two competent-looking young figures as they unloaded the truck. “They’ll paddle and drift along, and camp out nights. They can swim and cook and fish as well as anybody of any age. They’ll pass near a couple of towns, and at Lumberton they’ll get in touch with a friend of mine and phone for the truck to come for them and their canoe.”
Sam Tolliver sighed. “I’ve only got daughters,” he said. “I reckon if I had a boy, he’d pester to go on that trip. Shucks, if I was a boy myself, I’d want to make it.”
“And if I had more than a leg and a half, I’d be right with them,” nodded Major Hunter, grinning under his white moustache.
The boys were carrying down their camping equipment, piece by piece, stowing it in the canoe. Their canvas bag of provisions they wedged snugly amidships, so that it would not work loose, even if the canoe turned over. Their two hammocks, each complete with awning and mosquito netting, they also wedged in and secured with cord running from thwart to thwart.
“Got enough cooking utensils?” called down Major Hunter.
Jebs turned up his square, ruddy face. “Shoo, Major, we could cook for a banquet,” he grinned. “Mess kits, two canteens, a kettle, and aluminum foil for open-fire roasting. Likewise fifty pounds of chow— ample.”
Randy tossed in their extra clothing—a pair of old trousers and a waterproof jacket apiece. On their heads the boys cocked baseball-type hunting caps. Then they sloshed palmfuls of insect repellant from small bottles on their naked skins. Jebs picked up two canoe paddles and Major Hunter put a hand on his grandson’s sinewy brown shoulder.
“Randy,” he said soberly, “if I thought I had to warn you to look after yourself, I’d never have allowed you to go. But, anyway—look after yourself, my boy.”
“I’ll do that, sir,” promised Randy. “You do the same.”
They shook hands affectionately, and the boys climbed down to launch their craft. Jebs scrambled into the bow, and Randy took stern position. They waved their paddles as they slid away.
“See you in about a week!” yelled Jebs. “Here we go!”
“Bon voyager called Major Hunter.
Almost at once the canoe was drifting around a tree-clustered curve, and in among the crowded thickets beyond.
“Here we go, Randy,” said Jebs, and he sounded hushed, almost awed, as he peered ahead into the cloaking shadows. “One hundred miles or less, of canoe travel. We’ll make Lumberton about six days from now—we hope.”
And he did not quite make a joke of it. The boys paddled in silence around another downstream curve westward, with trees thronging to the very lips of the banks. The gums looked like sinewy dark sentinels. The cypresses, larger and heavily gnarled, thrust out immense branches to shut away the sky, and their roots clutched down into the water like monstrous crooked claws. The creek, with its strong infusion of rotted vegetable matter, looked gloomier still in the massed shade.
To right and left, it was hard to see through the closely marshalled stems. Overhead, a many-layered crisscross of branches and foliage roofed them in, and the fil
“You sure we packed enough to eat, Randy?” said Jebs after some moments, and his voice sounded low and heavy and solemn.
“You know what we packed,” replied Randy, and heard the same hushed quality in his own voice.
“I know, but I just want to talk. I kind of argued with my daddy about putting in canned field peas. They eat good with me, but you know, Randy, some folks don’t relish ’em. I remember one old lady at daddy’s store, and she said, ‘where I come from, we wouldn’t feed those things to the hogs.’ ”
“Neither would I,” chuckled Randy. “I’d eat them myself. I like field peas.”
“I heard your granddaddy, the Major, say that General Robert E. Lee called field peas the best friend the Confederacy had during the old war years.”
“I remember his saying that,” said Randy. “The Confederates ground them up to make bread. It doesn’t sound tasty to me, but from what I read about their rations in history, they must have been glad to get it.”
“What was good enough for Robert E. Lee’s good enough for anybody,” said Jebs stoutly. “Even for Yankees.”
“Don’t call me a Yankee,” spoke up Randy, for this was an old argument, half joke and half serious, between them. “I was born up north, but my father and grandfather and great-grandfather and great- great grandfather, all of them, were bom right here in Moore County.”
“Who’s calling you a Yankee?” sniffed Jebs, turning his square face back to wink. “Don’t holler before you’re hurt. And when it comes to that, we’re not in Moore County, now. Just about here”—he waved his paddle as they swung around a wider, quieter curve of the shadowed stream—“we float out from between Moore and Richmond Counties. I figure we’ve got Hoke County on our left hand and Scotland County on our right. Kind of sailing away from home, huh?”
“Kind of,” agreed Randy, solemn again.
At least the insects did not bother them. The boys heard a constant buzz in the warm, hushed air, but the repellant compound smeared on face and body warned the pests away.
“Well, anyway, we’ve got all we need to eat—” began Randy.
Plop! Something dropped from a low branch just overhead and landed with a solid splash in the water, almost between their paddle blades.
“What was that?” demanded Jebs.
Randy saw, and jumped several inches free of his seat.
“Snake!” he yelped. “There he goes, swimming away!”
A long cable of dark-banded brownish gray slid toward the bank. Its high-lifted head was broad- jawed, low-skulled, with pallid lips.
= “A cottonmouth,” said Jebs. “It almost jumped in here with us.”
They gazed nervously left and right. At once they spied another snake, darkly blotched, coiled upon the knee of a cypress root almost at water level. Randy felt his dark hair stir, as though it wanted to stand up.
“Let’s keep in midstream,” he suggested. “They seem to swarm up in the branches close to shore. I don’t want any snakes hitch-hiking a ride with us.”
“And that’s for sure,” said Jebs. “Your motion’s carried, unanimously.”
Studiously they employed their paddles to keep in the center of the current. They spied another snake, then still another, on low-lying branches. When yet one more came into view, draped among the leaves of a low bush that grew half into the creek, Jebs snorted with disgust and struck with the edge of his paddle blade. Knocked from its perch, the creature floundered in the water as they slid past.
“This is kind of primitive,” said Randy. “Kind of like the old prehistoric swampy days, with dinosaurs. Or the Garden of Eden, complete with snakes.”
“You’ll get used to them, a little bit, if you’re going to live in the south,” said Jebs. “We’ve got to figure on a snake population in this creek. Shouldn’t have come if we were—” he stopped and pointed. “Is that a bridge up ahead?”
“It sure enough is,” said Randy, leaning forward to see. “And isn’t it a nice-looking one? Civilized and comforting.”
Coming close, they saw that there were really two bridges, old but serviceable, close together. At that point a cleared roadway gave them sunlight overhead. They rounded curve after sweeping curve of the stream to approach the bridges.
“Must be the road to Camp Mackall,” Jebs informed Randy. “Just below here’s where the old canoe club used to be.”
The creek was wide and shallow beyond the twin bridges, and a flat-bottomed boat floated there with two fishermen in it. They greeted the boys with a friendly “Hey,” and watched as the canoe went on through this little cleared evidence of man’s busy ways into more twisting and twining water-wilderness beyond.
THE STRANGE PADDLER
RANDY and Jebs began to lose their earlier timidity, to become used to the creek and its cloaking stretches of woods. The next snakes they saw did not fill them with such unreasoning nervousness. At the approach of noon, they even felt ready to swim a little. At a point where the creek widened into a fair-sized basin, and no hostile serpents festooned the roots and branches, they tied to a shoreside stump and plunged in.
The waters of Drowning Creek were as dark as strong tea, but not muddy. Lean, brown Randy and chunky, ruddy Jebs dived and paddled, achieved a churning sprint or two, then climbed back into the canoe to eat the sandwiches and apples they had brought for their first meal of the voyage. The first bites reminded them that they were healthily hungry with the exercise and elation of the adventure’s beginning.
“Easy with the drinking water,” warned Randy as Jebs tilted a canteen to his thirsty mouth. “We dojn’t know where we’ll get more.”
“I’m just washing out my gullet,” said Jebs. “Anyway, there are a few houses along this creek, I’ve heard tell, and a house means water supply. We’ll borrow some refills.”
They finished their snack, and Randy produced a bottle of insect repellant.
“Give me some bug-beater, too,” said Jebs. “We washed off our first touch when we went swimming. I can hear that task force humming ’round now, telling each other that the target’s in sight.”
They anointed themselves afresh and began to paddle on downstream.
They saw ducks in the water, and the ducks saw them, too, and rose frantically into flight. Once, at the end of a long straight segment of creek channel, they spied something white, slim and graceful. It stood tall and quiet at the waterside many yards ahead, then curved down its slender neck to snap something from the depths with its long dark bill. Randy tried to back water and make the canoe stop for a quiet observation; but his paddle splashed, and the white shape spread broad, angel-pale wings and soared away over the treetops.
“A snowy,” muttered Jebs raptly. “Wasn’t it pretty?”
“It was an egret,” said Randy.
“We call ’em snowies. Used to be a right much of ’em, but they got scarced out by hunters. Shame, isn’t it?”
“It is that,” Randy agreed.
As they approached the spot from which the egret had risen, they saw that here was the narrow mouth of a smaller stream, half choked with juicy green weeds, that emptied into the larger channel. Beyond that, there seemed to be a wider and deeper main flow.
“There’s a lot of creeks in this part of North Carolina, aren’t there, Jebs?” asked Randy.
“A good much. Drowning Creek’s about the biggest. But we’ve likewise got Governor’s, Thaggard’s, Bear and Deer and Buffalo and Puppy.” Jebs paused to bring other names to memory. “Then there’s Herd and Suck and Wade, and Big Little and Little Little. Quewhiffle, too—Indian name. And I don’t know how many others.”
“Where did they get names like that?”
Jebs’ blond head wagged. “Can’t tell you, Randy, and probably nobody else can tha
Randy felt a trifle of returning nervousness as he thought of how it might feel to be washed under a shelf of earth by the current.
“Where does Drowning Creek end up, Jebs?”
“It sort of turns into Lumber River,” Jebs informed him. “As a matter of fact, Drowning Creek’s a name for the upper part of Lumber River, and it just grows bigger with all the extra water from little branches like that one, until—”
He flourished his paddle at another contributing trickle, and a snake dropped from the leafless forked branch of a dead tree into the water.
With the contributions of little streams to right and left, Drowning Creek widened and deepened still more. The trees thronged close to the banks, matted thickly between with vines and brush. Along the way sang legion after legion of frogs. As the canoe came close, each legion hushed its music discreetly; then, as the canoe passed, struck up again in full chorus.
But then, even as Randy and Jebs congratulated themselves on the wider, easier water course, they came to a baffled stop. The two banks fell away to either side, and water seeped away right and left into marshy expanses from which dank shrubs and shiny- leafed trees sprouted in crammed profusion. Drowning Creek itself seemed half-choked by the woods, as though some of the trees had gone wading. There were gray, dead trunks, like frozen ghosts. Other trees were lushly healthy with the flow over and around their roots.