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Going Home to Natty

 Going Home to Natty 

Vickie McKeehan

Vickie writes romantic suspense. She’s the author of twelve books that include the Evil Secrets Trilogy, the Pelican Pointe Series and the Skye Cree novels. She’s currently working on a new trilogy set in Key West, Florida, called The Indigo Brothers Trilogy, as well as the fourth Skye Cree installment. Vickie makes her home in Southern California.

     Thomas O’Bannon, or “Tommy O” as he was known with some affection around his hometown of Chiwatawing, Florida, was used to walking along the backroads of the only place he’d ever lived. Tommy knew every chunk of dirt and rock the route had to offer, and could, like tonight, wander among its towering bald cypress draped in Spanish moss, unafraid of anything or anyone.

     He’d grown up not a mile from where he shared a little cabin on the other side of the swamp with his wife, Natty, and their two children. As familiar as he was with the terrain and the trail that twined through the bogs, the lantern he held would help light his way there. Especially since he was beginning to feel the buzz of the moonshine he’d stopped to sample at Bridger Bostwick’s instead of heading straight home.

     Natty would no doubt be waiting with supper. Tommy was pretty sure tonight it would be creamed codfish on toast. Knowing full well he should have been sitting at the supper table right about now instead of making his way around the wetlands in the dark, he knew he’d have to sweet talk his way past Natty’s temper to get in the door.

     But he still had time to work on his excuse as to why he’d elected to spend precious coin on a jar of Bridger’s prized recipe in the first place. In Tommy’s mind a man was entitled to relax after a hard day spent busting his ass ten hours straight at the sawmill for fifty cents an hour.

     That reason would have to do, Tommy decided as he whistled while he ambled under the lush canopy of conifers that marked the twisting path toward home.

     Natty would surely perk up when he told her he’d popped into Driscoll’s General Store after work. He’d ordered that pretty pink gingham from Sears Roebuck. The fabric she’d been bugging him to buy her since last spring when the 1932 catalog had debuted. At nine cents a yard he’d also added a stretch of blue percale. With Christmas coming, the kids could use new shirts. He was pretty sure that news would be enough to keep Natty off his back while he ate his meal in peace.

     Tommy hadn’t gone far past Pete Piersall’s place and the copse of sour gum trees that guarded the property when the lantern went out. He held it up to his face, lightly shook it to check if the reservoir cup was empty. But it was so dark he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. For the first time that night the chorus of crickets competing with the frogs took center stage. Somewhere an egret called to his mate. He heard something slither and then plop into the water. Tommy sucked in a shaky breath. How the hell was he supposed to focus on navigating the bog with no light?

     “Damn it,” he muttered. “Now’s a fine time to run out of kerosene.”

     The mournful wail of a loon caught him off guard and had Tommy stumbling. He lost his footing and tripped over the fallen trunk of a mangrove tree that seemed to have jumped out of nowhere into his path.

     Twigs cracked behind him. Leaves rustled in front.

     “Who’s there?” Tommy called out, beginning to feel like he was no longer alone. When he got no answer, he stood up on unsteady feet. His head began to spin, the alcohol making him lightheaded. He plopped his butt down on the log he’d fallen over to buy time to gain his balance back. Almost at once it felt as though someone sat down on the opposite end a few feet away. He couldn’t see a blasted thing though.

     But the sound of a match striking dry wood confirmed he had company. In the blackness Tommy caught the red glow of a cigarette, heard the intake of breath as the person drew smoke into his lungs.

     “That you, Pete? Say something why don’t you?”


     Tommy took out his jar with the remaining corn mash, took a swig to calm his ever-increasing jumpiness. “Got me some of Bridger’s hooch here. You know ol’ Bridger, he makes the best stuff in the county. I’m happy to share with you.” He held out the vessel hoping someone would take it. The moment he felt the glass leave his hand, Tommy got a strong whiff of vanilla mingled with oranges, even though the nearest grove was a good five miles north of where he sat.

     “Hadn’t had me a good shot of whiskey in a long time,” a croaky voice stated from the other side of the log.                “Thanks.”

     Finally, Tommy thought, the stranger had spoken. But he didn’t recognize the voice as belonging to his neighbor Pete.

     “Tommy O’s my name. What’s yours?”

     “Jim Wyler. Got me a little spread near Persimmon Fork.”

     At the declaration, the air chilled. The wind kicked up. A soupy fog began to rise up out of the boggy ground putting the surrounding circle of trees in a soft, purple glow.

     Tommy understood the reason. Jim Wyler had perished some twenty odd years earlier in this very swamp, found beaten to death. These days, all that remained of Jim’s Persimmon Fork “spread” was an old shed and a ramshackle barn that was home to mostly cottonmouths and gators.

     Tommy tamped down the urge to take off running. He wasn’t sure what good it would do him anyway. It was too dark to see the pathway home. His shoulders slumped as he tried to think of something to say to ol’ Jim. But what did a person talk about with a dead guy?

     “Is there an afterlife?” Tommy heard himself ask.

     “Sure. Just not how they described it to you.”

     “Are there others out here like you?”

     “Oh yeah. This place has seen its fair share of death. Nights like tonight make us restless.”

     Tommy didn’t like the sound of that. “How come you died here, Jim?”

     “Someone thought I’d found that Spanish gold I’d been looking for most of my life, followed me from town and waylaid me on the way home. As a matter of fact, it was twenty-five years ago tonight, almost to the minute.”

     Tommy swallowed hard, beginning to get a sick feeling in his gut. “Who was it did this to you? I’ll turn him in for it.”

     “Can’t. He’s already dead. He jumped me and beat me up some, promised not to hurt me more if I told him where I had the gold hidden. So, I gave up the location.”

     “He got your gold?”

     Jim laughed. “Not quite. I forgot to tell him about Moe.”

     “Who’s Moe?”

     “Biggest alligator I ever saw in these parts. I’m pretty sure ol’ Moe swallowed that guy in one bite.”

     “Is Moe still around?”

     “Yep. A little bigger and a whole lot meaner.”

     “Mind if I ask where it is? The gold I mean.”

     “I know what you meant. Don’t mind at all. I tell you what I’ll do, Tommy. I’ll give you a choice. I’ll tell you the location of where the gold is and you can take your chances with Moe just like he did. If you win the round, you keep the loot. Or, I can help you get home to Natty. It’s your choice.”

     “That’s not fair.”

     “Life rarely is. That’s why you’ll have to decide what’s more important, trying your luck with Moe and maybe, just maybe, getting your hands on all that gold, or going home to something a lot more valuable than money. I never had the wife and kids but I sure would’ve liked to have tried the family thing.”

     Tommy thought about all the things he could buy Natty and the kids with the gold. Times were tough all over. An opportunity like this didn’t come along every day.

     “I’m good at hunting gators.”

     “You’d have to be quick and strong because Moe is no ordinary gator.”

     Tommy scrubbed a hand over the stubble on his chin and stood up. “Okay, Jim. Come on, let’s go. I’ve made my decision.”

     The next morning, Tommy woke with the hangover from hell. His throat felt like he’d tried to swallow six acres of pennywort. His stomach roiled as if he’d eaten a batch of chickweed.

     Through bleary eyes he made out Natty standing over him. She was doing her best to shake him fully awake. Her lips kept moving so he knew she was trying to tell him something. But it was like he couldn’t come out of the dream he’d had the night before. After several long seconds he made out the words, “sheriff” and “armless body,” so he sat upright. “Woman what are you going on about? What’s wrong?”

     “Tommy, you have to get up. The sheriff’s here, waiting in the parlor. He said Pete Piersall found another headless torso in the swamp this morning. It’s like they find one about this same time every year, half eaten by a gator. He knows you went right through there last night on your way home. Sheriff wants to know if you saw anything.”

     Saw anything? Of course, he had. He’d never forget it. But would anyone believe him? Tommy let his aching head fall back onto his pillow, grateful that for once in his life he’d made the right decision.

     As his wife turned to leave their tiny bedroom, Tommy grabbed her hand. “Natty?”


     “When’s the last time I told you that I love you?”

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