“I heard a gator in the pond down past the
pecan orchard,” Sophie said as she put strawberry jam on her scrambled eggs.
“I don’t know how you can eat eggs with jelly on them,” her daddy said shaking his head and smiling, “but what makes you think there is a gator in the pond.”
“I heard her slide into the water,” Sophie mumbled, her mouth full of fresh eggs she had gathered herself that morning. “I heard her when I was down at the back gate, sounded like a big one, she might get a piglet. I bet she’s got a nest on the sandy bank by the old fort road. The sunlight there is just right and so is the soil.”
Her daddy laughed, “When did you get to be a gator expert?”
“I watch them down at Robin’s Cut when we are fishing, they are more complicated than people think,” Sophie said with admiration, “they aren’t just dumb lizards.”
Her daddy smiled. He knew she was a smart little girl, so painfully aware of the world around her, she rarely missed anything. She helped all the farm animals when they were injured; she raised baby birds that fell from the trees, and cried over the calves that died at birth. Six ducks she raised still think she is their mother and they follow her from the pond to the house but her observations of the wild animals were what really amazed her father; she spent her entire summer when she was eight following a family of raccoons. “I think you might be a vet or a scientist one day. You have a way with creatures especially wild ones,” he said still smiling.
“I have never seen a girl vet,” Sophie said with her eyes down. “I don’t know if girls can be vets. Caleb says that girls stay home and cook and have babies; they can’t be doctors.”
“Caleb is just jealous because you are so smart; you can be anything you want to be,” her daddy said as he gently rubbed her back with his big calloused hand. He knew Caleb was half right, it would be harder for her but he did not want to tell a twelve year old that her dreams could not come true…if she believed it was possible she could make it happen.
“Do you really think so?” Sophie asked, her big brown eyes were suddenly brighter.
“Of course I do,” her father lied a bit, “you can be a doctor or anything else you set your mind to. I will go down to the pond today and shoot that gator.”
“Oh no,” Sophie cried as she shook her head, her braids swung violently from side to side. “I did not mean you should kill her. She will stay near the nest and I want to put some barbed wire up on the side of the old road. It will keep the pigs out and I can observe the nest until the eggs hatch. I want to watch up close and see how she is with her younguns. I think they care for their babies more than most folks think. Will you help me with the fence?”
“Well,” her daddy answered as he rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger, “ I have to plant the lower field with beans today and fix the well crank but I think I can manage some time after dinner if you can get the wire and poles down to the pond. There is plenty of extra behind the smoke houses and truthfully I don’t like for the hogs to go past the old road anyway, too many snakes and wild boar.”
“Oh yes,” Sophie squealed so pleased with his answer. “I will get the wire down to the pond. Thank you Daddy.” She jumped up and hugged him.
“Don’t get too close to any gator now especially one with younguns.” He said as she hugged his waist, “and I don’t want to have a pond full of the baby gators growing up to eat all my hogs. What are you going to do about that?”
Sophie looked thoughtful for a moment. “I don’t think the big gator will stay too long, there is not enough there for her to eat and if I have to I will catch the young ones in my fish net and take them down to the marsh.”
“Okay,” her father said, “that part is up to you but if the big gator won’t go I can’t have her that close, she is a danger to the livestock and you know what I will have to do.”
“I understand…” Sophie yelled as she ran out the back door.
Her father just smiled and finished his coffee.
It took Sophie most of the morning to get the rolls of wire and posts ready to take down to the old fort road. She had to catch the mule and hitch him up to the small cart then she had to load the wire by rigging up a ramp with some old barn boards and rolling them up onto the cart. The posts were the easy part but by the time she got the cart loaded she was exhausted. She took a break and ate scuppernongs in the shade of the grape arbor. Her momma was in Wilmington helping her older sister with the new baby or she would have had to come in and eat a proper lunch but her daddy was not so concerned with such things so she had at least another week of freedom.
After her lunch of scuppernongs Sophie headed out towards the old fort road. The road had gotten that name because it once led to a civil war battery down by the river. Daddy told her the battery had been used to set up crossfire on the river from Fort Fisher on the other side. Mostly it was just mounds of sandy earth covered with sea oats and sand spurs but there were a couple of old storage bunkers that had half way fallen in and some rotted wooden doors and cannon platforms. In the winter when the snakes were sleeping Sophie would go there and look for things like buttons and lead balls, once she even found a pair of spectacles but her daddy did not know. Of all the places on the farm that was the one place she was not supposed to go because her daddy was afraid there might be unexploded ordinance there and he said it was too dangerous. But she was only going as far as the road today not around the pond and down to the river.
Sophie stopped the cart a hundred feet or so from the pond and she walked the rest of the way being as quiet as possible. She ducked down behind some tall grass by the side of the road and peeked up slowly and there she was; the big female gator was floating right in the center of the black water pond enjoying the afternoon sun on her back. Sophie had been right about her size she was huge. Knowing it was going to be a awhile before her daddy showed up Sophie worked her way back to the cart unloaded it and took the mule home to the barn. A gator that size would spook any mule and Sophie did not want him running off with the cart.
After dinner Sophie and her daddy put up the fence to keep any hogs from wandering down to the pond and then they walked back to the house in the purple twilight. The pecan trees were full of lightening bugs and Sophie thought the orchard looked like a fairy land. He father’s voice broke the spell.
“I have to go into town tonight,” he said when they were about half way through the orchard. “Something happened down by the docks last night and the men of the town have to discuss it.”
He sounded strange to Sophie as if he wasn’t telling her the whole story.
“What happened?” she asked.
Her father hesitated, “Jamie Holston’s son was found dead this morning.”
“Jamie!” Sophie said, “Oh how awful, he isn’t even seven years old. What was he doing down by the docks. Did he drown?”
“We don’t know.” Her father shook his head, “Doc Ben has had the body all day and that is one of the things the grown- ups need to discuss and I think you should come with me and stay at Miss Minnie’s house until the meeting is over with your mom being gone and all.”
“Oh please don’t make me go to Miss Minnie’s,” Sophie begged. “She will make me do needlepoint or sew or some other silly girl stuff and then she will make me look through pattern books and talk about dresses. I will be fine. I am almost thirteen and Momma says I am practically grown.”
“Well I suppose you are about grown,” he said as picked her up under one arm.
Sophie laughed and pretended to struggle. “Put me down,” she protested but her daddy just held her tighter.
“You will always be my little girl no matter how old you get,” he said as he put her down, now race me to the house Miss all grown up!”
About an hour later her father took the truck into town. He made her promise not to let anyone in and he told her to call Mr. Phillips, the nearest neighbor if she saw or heard anything out of the ordinary. Sophie really did not know what he was so worried about she had stayed by herself plenty of times when he and Momma went into town. She watched as the truck disappeared in a cloud of dust, the two small tail lights glowed like dragon eyes in the distance cloud of dust.
“Well he is gone for at least a few hours,” Sophie said to the two old hounds that her father loved near bout as much as her. “You two are going to stay here and watch the house for me while I go down and watch that gator. Who knows the eggs may hatch tonight.” The two old coon hounds looked at her as if they disapproved but she didn’t pay any attention.
Sophie took her lantern and her twenty-two rifle and she headed out across the pecan orchard back to the pond. Once she got there she worked her way around the pond and climbed up onto a low hanging live oak branch and got comfortable. The moon was just coming up and it was only two days from full so Sophie knew she would soon have plenty of light. From her vantage point she finally spotted the gator on the opposite side of the pond lying on a muddy bank. The gator glistened in the moonlight and Sophie though she was so beautiful; she knew no one else would think a slimy alligator was beautiful but that was how Sophie thought, not at all like other people, especially little girls.
Suddenly a light caught Sophie’s attention, it looked like a lantern light further down in the woods towards the battery. Who could be down at the battery this time of night Sophie thought, whoever it is they can’t be up to any good, I bet they are poachers after deer or boar. She double checked on the gator to make sure she had not moved and then she climbed down making almost no noise at all. Sophie had grown up in the woods and the swamps and she knew how to move as silent as a deer. She could still see the light even further into the woods; it shone through the Spanish moss that hung thick from the oaks. One thing Sophie did notice whoever was with the lantern moved as quiet as she did and that was strange.
The light bobbed up and down as Sophie made her way towards it. Several times she thought it had gone out but then she would spot it again. Finally she came to the edge of the woods right in front of the old entrance to the battery. Sophie could see the light but now it was inside one of the half caved in bunkers, the beams of light were streaming out of the holes in the rotten door. Now Sophie knew she should just turn around and leave but now her curiosity was up and she was not about to leave without at least getting a peek at whoever was inside that bunker. Who knows maybe they were treasure hunters she thought and this was her daddy’s land and that made them thieves. Lots of people asked to dig at the battery but her daddy always said no, he thought it was disrespectful. Too many good men died out there, he would say and then shake his head, Sophie’s own great grandfather had been an artillery officer across the river at Fort Fisher; he had survived the fall of the fort and spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp in New York. She had heard the tale countless times while having churned peach ice cream on the front porch.
Sophie walked carefully across the open area in the middle of the fort. Just as she was half ways across the battery yard a streak of lightening lite up the sky over the river. She had not even noticed the storm coming in from the ocean she had been so busy following the light. For a split second she was blinded and when she turned back towards the bunker she saw a man standing not ten feet in front of her; he seemed to have just appeared out of nowhere. She almost screamed but Sophie knew how fear affected animals and humans for that matter; you must never show fear; fear will only make you look weak, fear made you prey.
“What are you doing on our property?” she said with as much authority as she could muster. She did not point her rifle at him but she held it at her chest so he could see it plain and clear. The man seemed dazed as he stared at her and as a cloud cleared from in front of the moon the light changed and Sophie realized that despite his height he was more a boy than a man. He did not look a day older than sixteen and the clothes he was wearing…it was some type of uniform, he was a soldier. He was very pale and even in the moonlight Sophie could see his bright blue eyes, wisps of straw colored hair peaked out from under his cap, Sophie looked down and saw that he was barefoot.
“I beg your pardon Miss,” he said as he bowed slightly, “I did not mean to startle you; you must be one of Lieutenant Robert McRackans daughters. I am afraid I have lost my company, in fact I am a bit confused as to where everyone has gone.”
“Robert McRackan was my great grandfather,” Sophie replied surprised, “you could not possibly have known him, you are just a boy.”
The young man looked more distraught and more confused, “I can’t find my way home…will you help me, please?”
“Of course I will help you, what is your name and where do you live.” Sophie asked.
“My name is…” he paused as if searching for the word, “my name is...Will…” and suddenly the lightening cracked again and when Sophie’s eyes adjusted Will was gone and before her was a horribly disfigured monster. His chest looked as if something had come through it; Sophie could see broken jagged shards of rib bones and lung tissue glistening in the moon light. He was holding one hand to his belly and intestines were slipping through his fingers and one side of his head was almost gone leaving only one eye and his mouth, blood and brains were running down his face and onto his shoulders.
Sophie may have been the bravest girl in the world that night but still she screamed and loud; if there had been anyone else in a three mile radius they would have heard her but no one did. She stepped back and felt her foot go through a rotted board as she fell backwards onto the sand. The lightening flashed again and he was right above her staring down with the one eye, his mouth moving as black blood poured out. She rolled away losing her lantern and her rifle but she managed to get to her feet and took off running. She could not see very well in the dark shadows of the live oaks and several times she almost hit her head on one of the low branches. Spanish moss brushed her face like demon hair as she crashed through the brush. She almost ran right into the pond but realized just in time as she burst into the reeds. Her thrashing startled the gator and it splashed into the pond. Sophie was now knee deep in muck and she crawled, clawing her way through the mud until she got back to firm ground. As the lightening cut the sky she saw him coming through the woods, he was almost to the pond; she pulled herself onto the solid ground and headed up the embankment toward the old fort road. She rolled under the barbed wire fence she and her father had put up that afternoon and just as she got onto the road the rain began to come down in sheets, so thick she could not see twenty feet behind her. She took off running and did not look back until she got to the pecan orchard. As she swung open the big gate she looked back down the road but all she could see was the driving rain.
By the time she got to the back porch the dogs were barking; she slid onto the porch, flung open the door and fell inside. She managed to reach up and turn the skeleton key locking the back door. Both the hounds were there and she held on to them in the dark kitchen and cried, waiting to hear footsteps on the porch but no footsteps came and eventually she got up the nerve to stand up and look. The yard was empty.
Sophie eventually collected herself enough to clean up the mud she had brought into the kitchen and just a few minutes after she had gotten herself changed into clean clothes she saw the lights of her daddy’s pick-up come around the curve way down by the bean fields. She had never been so happy to see those lights. She would get up real early and sweep the mud off the back porch but right now she was not leaving the house, not even a few steps.
Sophie really did not sleep a wink that night. When she closed her eyes she saw his face first as the pale faced blue eyed boy and then as the monster with half a head, black blood pouring from his mouth. She saw his bloody lips moving as if he was trying to say something but no words came out, her mind kept going back to his lips; what was he saying? . She got up way before dawn and swept the dried mud off the back porch. She knew she had to go back and get her rifle and lantern. She did not want to tell her daddy that she had disobeyed him and gone out at night and to top it off she had gone to the old battery. She made pancakes and bacon and then started the coffee. Soon the smell of the coffee brought her daddy into the kitchen.
“You are up mighty early,” he said as he pulled out one of the straight back kitchen chairs.
“Just trying to help with momma gone,” Sophie said trying to sound normal. She was always sure her daddy could tell when she was lying even if he did not call her out on it. He just started cutting up his pancakes and Sophie breathed a little sigh of relief.
“What did you find about Jamie?” Sophie asked trying to take the spotlight off of her and she was truly interested.
Her father just shook his head and swallowed down a big bite of pancakes with a swig of fresh coffee. “Nothing good, that’s what I found out,” he said very seriously. “That poor child did not drown, that’s for sure not unless he strangled himself first.”
Sophie’s mouth dropped open, “you mean he was murdered; who would do such a thing…and why?”
"You are too young to understand but sometimes grown-ups are sick, sick in their mind and they do things to children, and to women that are just too horrible for me to talk about with you. What that poor little boy went through before he was killed well I am telling you Sophie it was bad, really bad. I cannot even begin to think about what his parents are feeling.”
Her father stopped and pushed his plate back a bit, “thank you for breakfast but I am afraid I am just not very hungry this morning. I am going to see to the tobacco picking this morning, June and his four boys are going to be working for me today and after that I am going back into town to help the Sheriff. He wants about a dozen men to go with him and both deputies to the big freighter that is docked at the main pier. He wants to question the crew and he wants a show of force. Sometimes those ship crews can be a pretty tight group and he doesn’t want trouble.
“Does the Sheriff think one of the sailors killed Jamie? Sophie asked wide eyed.
“He doesn’t know but it makes sense.” Her father answered. “That ship has only been here two days and suddenly we have a dead body and without upsetting you just let me say that whoever did such a terrible thing has probably done it before. He had tried to weight the body down but the rope must have gotten caught on something and it cut clean through then poor Jamie washed ashore. No whoever did this knew what they were doing and they had hoped the body would not be found at least for awhile. We have not had a murder in this town for over six years and that was a fight over a woman, certainly nothing like this.”
“Be careful Daddy,” Sophie said as she put her arms around his neck. “Please be careful.”
“Don’t worry honey a man like this doesn’t fight with men he likes his victims to be helpless, weak, frightened and helpless. Don’t you worry about me but as for you until we get the man who did this I don’t want you to leave the yard. June and his boys will be right down past the bean fields until sunset and I’ll let him know if you need him you will ring the bell and he and his boys will come running. I feel better with you here rather than in town but you stay near the house and keep your rifle loaded.”
The mention of the rifle made Sophie cringe, “yes Daddy,” she answered.
Sophie spent the morning on the front porch snapping peas and watching the old rooster scratch up the ground under the azalea bushes. Whenever he found a bug he would call tuck, tuck, tuck and one of the hens would come running. Her mind drifted as she watched the old bird, she was trying hard to understand what had happened to her last night and figure out how she was going to get her rifle back before her Daddy realized it was gone.
Finally she had come to the conclusion that what she had seen was a will o’the wisp, a swamp spirit that lures people into the marsh for one reason or another. Her mother had told her that will o’the wisps sometimes lead people to their death in the quick sand or sometimes they are protecting a hidden treasure and try to send people in the wrong direction but every now and then they are a lost soul trapped and drifting in the swamp looking for the path home. Sophie thought that was what had happened to her, she had met one of those trapped souls, a young soldier who died at the battery and for some reason he did not know he was dead and he could not find his way to the other side. On some level she felt great pity for him but on another level he frightened her to the core… but she still had to get her lost rifle back, spirit notwithstanding.
Her father took his shotgun and put it on the rack in the pickup rear window. He looked at his big pocket watch. “It is four o’clock now; I will be home by dark. You ring that bell if you need help.”
Sophie nodded and then watched as the truck got smaller and smaller and then disappeared around the bend past the bean fields. When she was sure he was gone she jumped up and ran around the house, she had over four hours of daylight to get down to the battery and back and as much as she did not want to go she knew she had too, plus no will o’the wisp would show itself it the daylight…it just wasn’t done. She was going to ride the mule, that way she could make even better time but when she got to the barn she realized the mule was gone, June had him down in the tobacco field pulling the sled so that meant she would have to take the pony. She loved her pony but the mule was steadier and much harder to spook but she needed to do this quickly so she saddled up Patches.
They trotted across the pecan orchard and had made it down to the old fort road in no time. Sophie got down and led Patches around the new fence and then she mounted back up and headed down the less used part of the old road that went to the battery. This part of the road was mostly overgrown but Sophie thought even though this way was longer she could make better time than going through the live oak forest, plus it was a whole lot sunnier on the road. The gloomy shadows under the live oaks seemed to be alive as they reached out onto the road and Sophie purposefully guided Patches around the dark spots as if they would be trapped in the shadows. Several times Sophie imagined movement in the woods to her left, she kept thinking she saw something but then it would be nothing. It is probably just a deer, she told herself as she encouraged Patches to pick up the pace. Finally she topped a small rise and she could see the sandy walls of the battery about a quarter mile down the hill. She kicked Patches to a run and did not slow down until she was in the fort. Sophie jumped down and grabbed her rifle and lantern both lying right where she had dropped them the night before. She did not stop to look around or ponder the situation; she was back on Patches and throwing up sand behind them before even a will o’the wisp had time to notice.
They took off up the hill at a full gallop and as they topped the rise Sophie saw a large wild boar standing right in their path. He spun to face the oncoming pony and this spooked Patches. The frightened pony veered off the road and took off through the live oaks. Sophie was a good rider but no match for the low hanging live oak branches; she caught one and hit the ground hard.
When she woke up the last rays of the sun were filtering through the Spanish moss and the cicadas were singing to greet the night. Sophie sat up and put her hand to her head. She felt a huge bump and a bit of dried blood but she could move all of her fingers and toes and that was good. She stood up on wobbly legs and tried to get her bearings. Patches was nowhere in sight and Sophie was sure the silly pony was safe back at the barn waiting to be put in her stall. Suddenly Sophie realized how long she had been out, night was falling and she was not going to get out of these woods before dark. Suddenly she heard a twig snap; she froze too frightened to look in the direction of the sound.
“I been watching you sleep little lady,” a scratchy foreign sounding voice said, “You are like a little doll when you sleep.”
Sophie turned slowly and tried to make out the figure that was standing in the shadows not twenty feet from her. She could tell he was heavy set and even from twenty feet she could smell him, he reeked of sweat and alcohol.
“What do you want?” was all Sophie could think to say even though she really did not want to know the answer.
“I just want to have some fun…you know you and me together.” The man said as he stepped from the shadows. He was short but still a lot taller than Sophie; he had small dark eyes and almost no hair; he grinned and he had no front teeth. He stuck his tongue out through the hole where his teeth had been and wagged it at Sophie. “We going to play in and out. Now just stay still there little doll and let me touch you in places where it will feel so good.”
Sophie noticed he had a length of twine wrapped around one hand and she remembered her daddy saying that Jamie had been strangled; she took two steps back.
“You go ahead and bolt little rabbit and that will just make it all the more fun for me and all the harder on you when I catch you,” he said and then he wagged his tongue at her again. Suddenly an owl burst through the leafy canopy and grabbed a tiny rodent from the forest floor. It squealed and the greasy toothless man turned towards the sound and Sophie took off running. She thought she was going towards the pond, she wasn’t sure but she hoped. She could hear him crashing through the brush after her, no will o’the wisp this man, he was louder than an elephant. Sophie saw the rushes on the edge of the pond and she ran to her right up the embankment. She dropped to roll under the barbed wire fence and she almost made it but he caught her by one of her braids. He pulled her back and yanked her up lifting her off the ground.
“See little rabbit, I caught you,” he said so close to her face she felt the spit fly from his mouth. He hit her hard across the face and then he threw her over the low fence. She hit the ground hard and she felt blood in her mouth. Sophie tried to crawl away down the road towards home but he was over the fence and on her again. He was trying to pull down her pants and they ripped, Sophie felt his rough hand grab the back of her leg and she screamed. He slammed her face down hard into the dirt road and she felt the twine go around her neck and then suddenly nothing. Sophie rolled over and she saw him standing in the middle of old fort road staring at her, no he was staring at something behind her, Sophie turned and there was the will o’the wisp. It was a large glowing ball of light hovering three feet above the road but as she watched it became the mutilated soldier and then it opened it’s awful bloody mouth and screamed, it was like no scream she had ever heard or would ever hear again, it was as if all the dead moldering in their graves screamed all at once. The man, his greasy face ashen grey with fear, turned to run but in his confused state he ran the wrong way and he tumbled over the barbed wire fence and rolled down the embankment into the pond.
Sophie was afraid to move, a killer in one direction and a grotesque phantom in the other but when she turned back towards the wisp it was Will, the sad eyed boy.
“Please help me,” he whispered and then he was gone.
Sophie knew it was only matter of seconds before the horrible man got out of the pond so she stood up to run and then she heard another much more satisfying scream and a great deal of splashing as the big gator took his body into a death roll. Then the gator took him to the bottom of the pond to weight him down under a log. Just like he did to poor Jamie, Sophie thought as she watched bubbles rising from the center of the pond. She was not sure how long she stood there in the moonlight watching the black water but she did see the glow of the wisp as it disappeared into the live oaks and she was not afraid anymore.
“Sophie, Sophie!” voices were calling and Sophie could see the lanterns coming through the pecan orchard. “I’m here,” she called “Daddy I’m here,” and she ran towards the lights.
The next day the Sheriff and his men came down to get the body out of the pond. Sophie’s daddy insisted that the big gator not be harmed. There was quite a bit of discussion about it, her being a man eater and all but in the end Sophie’s father won and he and two of Junes son’s got a noose around the gators neck and tied her up.
“I don’t care if she did kill a man,” he told the Sheriff, “she saved my little girl and for that she gets a reprieve, plus you can hardly call that piece of trash a man.”
“You are one stubborn man Morris,” the Sheriff had replied but he didn’t argue too much. Sophie did not think he minded at all that the man had been eaten by a gator; he was just trying to sound professional. They pulled what the gator had left of the real monster from the bottom of the pond and just as they were finishing the baby gators began to emerge from the nest on the sandy bank. Sophie ran over to watch and she helped a few break free of their leathery eggs. After they had all hatched and headed for the water Sophie kept digging in the sand to look for any deeper eggs and she hit something hard. When she pulled it from the sand she realized it was a man’s jaw bone.
“Daddy, Daddy,” she yelled, “Come quick I found something…"
The Sheriff had the rest of the bones dug up and it turned out to be the remains of a civil war soldier. They found a small pocket watch with the name William E. Wilson engraved on it. Two women from the Daughters of the Confederacy came two weeks later and picked up the remains. They said William had been from Wilkes County and they were taking him home to be buried in his family plot. He still had relatives living there they told Sophie and he would finally get the burial he deserved; Will was finally going home. The ladies gently covered the wooden box with a Confederate flag and took it to their car. Sophie sat on the front porch and watched as they drove off with William. She never told anyone, not even her father who really saved her that night and she never saw the will o’the wisp again.