Hidden in the thick depth of the swamp's vegetation, a woman surreptitiously watched the men stealthily paddle a Jon boat in the stagnant water. They had long ago shut off the boat's noisy motor and tipped it up on the boat's stern. The paddles made almost no sound as they pushed against the water. With the sun directly above them, heat radiated upwards from the ground as well as from overhead. An occasional bird call sharply broke the stillness. Random breezes ruffled the tops of the tall oak trees. On the ground, the merciless, motionless air was sticky, hot and damp. Her soft footfalls as silent as the swamp, the woman treaded gently on the sand and grasses that made up the berm beneath her feet. The berm had been built decades ago in a failed attempt to prepare the swamp for agriculture. The workers had been prisoners in the state's penal systems, little better than legal slaves. As she trod on the fruits of their labour, the woman occasionally felt the pain of those forced labourers so long ago. Decades of inattention had let the berm return almost to its natural state. Its height above the water provided a safe footpath.
The woman was used to seeing poachers travel this waterway. In fact, she had even seen these particular poachers before. She recognized the man in the front and the one in the back of the small boat, except that there had only ever been two of them. This time there were three. The one in the centre was hunched over, looking down wearing a hoodie jacket that hid their face. The night had not been cold enough to justify the hoodie, and in this heat, it made no sense. The woman did not have a good feeling about this. Something in the carriage of the person in the middle of the boat told her this person did not want to be there and might even have been brought against their will.
The woman knew she could get a better look at the boat's occupants from a vantage point further along the waterway. She stepped softly ahead to the hidden lookout. As the boat passed the shielded place, the person in the centre of the boat looked directly at her and made eye contact for the briefest of seconds before looking back down. The woman was stunned by what she saw. She put her hand over her mouth to keep from crying out. The passenger in the middle was a girl and the girl was frightened.
The woman followed the boat for another half mile. No one spoke. The paddles silently pushed against the still water. The swamp kept its secrets.
The boat turned off the main stream into a tributary. One of the men said, "Should be good hunting in here."
"Only need one big gator," the other said.
"It'll be here."
The men gently paddled along the stream watching the water and the shoreline. They spotted a large alligator sleeping on the bank. The mid day heat made it lethargic. It would be slow moving and easy to trap. What the men did not see, but the woman did, was another alligator at least four feet longer than the one on the bank, slowly swimming behind the boat. Only its eyes, the tip of its nose and the ripples from its tail revealed its presence.
The man in the front of the boat turned to the girl.
"Just like we talked. I'll get 'im movin'. You catch 'im with the noose."
He handed her a long stick with a loop of rope on the end. He held a long pointed stick lightly in one hand. They stood up as the man in the back paddled the boat toward the sleeping alligator.
The boat gently touched the bank and the man in the front got out, warily stepping around the alligator. The girl stood in the boat with the pole trembling in her hands. As the first man poked the drowsing alligator with his stick, the other man pushed the girl into the water.
Choking back a shriek, the girl fell with a large splash into the water as the alligator spun on the man who had poked it and clamped on his leg. Hundreds of pounds of crushing force broke the bones like a toothpick. The man screamed in pain. With amazing speed, the alligator dragged the man into the water. With a grip capable of taking down a full grown bull, something as insubstantial as a two hundred pound human with a crushed leg did not have a chance. The spin was so violent that the alligator's tail flipped the small boat dumping its lone remaining occupant into the water. Seeing its opportunity, the alligator that had been patiently swimming behind the boat moved in to take its prey. The man who had been in the back of the boat did not even have time to cry out as the alligator pulled him under the water to begin its death spiral.
The woman on the shore had anticipated much of this. Her mind had been racing with possibilities since she had observed the girl in the boat. When the first man poked the alligator, she had run down the bank into the water. Fording the shallow stream, brandishing a sharply pointed stick to fend off the alligators she could repulse, she grabbed the girl by the hair and dragged her back across the stream to dry land on the other side.
The woman and the girl sat on the berm as the alligators settled to the bottom taking their prey with them. The overturned boat lay on the shore with its motor submerged and its contents spilled in the shallow water. Once the shock of what had happened wore off and the reality sank in, the girl began to cry. Whether it was grief or anger was hard to tell. The girl called the names of her father and grandfather. The woman let the girl cry until she could cry no longer.
"They're dead," the woman said when the girl finally quieted down. "Nothing we can do will bring them back."
The girl turned to the woman for the first time recognizing who had pulled her from the water and drew back in horror. "You're the Swamp Witch! Don't kill me." She crab walked backwards. Stories the hunters brought back about a mysterious wild woman who lived in the swamp filled her mind with fear and gripped her heart.
"Why would I want to kill you?"
The girl met the woman's eyes before saying, "Because you kill trespassers?"
"Did I kill your father?"
"Did I kill your grandfather?"
"No. Did you know them?"
"No, I don't, or rather didn't. You called their names enough for me to figure it out."
"You pulled me out."
"I walked in the water and grabbed you by the hair. Sorry if I hurt you."
The girl put her hand to her head, "A little. You saved my life. Why?"
"I'm not sure I have an answer. The bigger question is what do I do with you now that I have you."
"You gonna kill me?"
The woman laughed. "Why would I kill you after I saved you from the alligators?"
The girl eyed the woman suspiciously. "Why save me?"
"Didn't seem right, somehow, to let you die with them. Especially since the one in the back, I guess that was your father, pushed you in."
"Yes, he did," the woman nodded. "He grabbed the end of the pole you had in your hands and pushed. Why would he want to kill you?"
The woman sighed. "Yes, he did. Think about it. He wanted you dead, and he did not want evidence left behind. Alligators are extremely good at disposing of incriminating bodies."
"Why would they want to kill you? Do you have a lot of money coming to you? Did you win the lottery?"
"Can you walk?"
"We have a long walk before the rains come."
"Where are we going?"
"Someplace safe, but it's a long walk and we have to get you out of those wet shoes as soon as we can so your feet don't blister."
The woman stood and helped the girl to her feet. They brushed themselves off and appraised each other warily.
"Sweetheart, what's your name?"
"I don't need your last name. I need to know what to call you so that if something jumps out of the bush at you, I can get you to move out of the way."
"Okay, what's yours?"
"Not really, but you can call me that and I will answer. It's better you not know my name."
"It's a secret."
Heather dutifully trailed behind as they walked on top of the berm alongside the remains of what had once been an irrigation channel. The path had been well worn by deer and other animals that preferred to stay out of the reach of the alligators in the water. Witch walked silently on the soft earth. Heather's wet shoes squeaked with every step. Heather knew better than to complain. She had almost died and this woman could have just as easily left her instead of risking her own life to pull her away from the alligators.
Heather wondered what would drive a woman to choose a life hidden in the swamp. Witch was dressed for the part. Her clothes were made from deer skin. Her long black hair was pulled back off her neck and swung as she walked keeping the flies and mosquitoes away. Her skin was tanned to a brown that was almost as dark as the deer skin. Her moccasins were also made of deer skin, but the soles appeared to be a harder material, but still, she left no footprints. The prints from Heather's running shoes were as easy to track as if she had sprayed a line of orange paint to mark her trail.
Even though she was glad to be alive, Heather worried what lay ahead. If, as Witch said, her father had intended to throw her to the alligators, who else at home might have been in on it? As she thought about who her father's buddies were, she wondered if she could even trust the police. There were too many secrets around her house for her to rule anyone out. Her father's new girlfriend was definitely suspect.
After a mile of walking, Witch pointed to an opening in the vegetation on the opposite side of the berm from the channel. Heather followed down the slope to find a green plastic kayak gently floating tied to a tree. Heather did not need to be told to get in the front. Witch climbed in behind her.
"My home is completely surrounded by water," Witch answered the question Heather would have asked if she had thought about it sooner.
"Good idea," Heather said.
"I'm glad you approve."
"Not my place to approve. Island home makes sense. Keeps critters away."
"Mostly. It's the two legged critters that worry me. The alligators keep them away."
Heather picked up the paddle that lay in the center of the boat. "Why two paddles?"
"In case I lose one and the boat came with two."
Witch pointed and Heather dug her paddle deep into the water with a strong, sure stroke that demonstrated she had done this before, many times before. Witch smiled. She had underestimated Heather. They paddled though the swamp to a rise anchored in place against the flowing water by three giant oak trees. The space between their massive trunks was protected from the wind and rain by their canopies. In that space Witch had built her home. Heather took it all in as they approached the shore. The roof of the little house, or shack or shelter or whatever it was, was made from an overturned Jon boat. Thatched walls protected the insides from the elements. Since it was late spring, the night cold would not be an issue for them, but the rain, due any moment, would be.
Heather noticed that the boat was tipped so that the rain ran toward the front of the boat where it was collected in a barrel. That answered one question she had thought about. Camouflage netting covered the area between the trees and extended to the ground all around the camp site. A silt fence of the type used for highway construction to keep the sand out of the drainage ditches marked the perimeter. Heather surmised that the enclosure was protection not only from raccoons and other small animals but from observation from above. Heather and Witch pulled the kayak out of the water.
"Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."
"Your first visitor?"
Witch smiled. "Yes, you are my first invited guest."
"Others, not invited?"
"They never even got close."
"Are you hungry?"
Witch picked up an old tin can and walked to a contraption sitting away from the house at the edge of the clearing. A small flame burned under the base.
"Distilled water. Even the rain water around here could carry things we should not be drinking. Maybe it's a little crazy of me, but I distil all my water, even the rain water."
"Rain water is clean."
Heather shrugged. "Okay." She took the offered tin filled with water from the still. "No taste."
"Pure water has no taste, no odour and is perfectly clear. I know that in city water systems they put in chlorine and fluorides to keep people healthy, but out here the only water I know is safe to drink is what comes out of that monstrosity."
"Heather, most young women your age would be bursting with questions, chattering up a storm. You don't talk much. Why is that?"
Heather blinked. For a moment she appeared ready to cry. "Talk hurts." She pulled back the collar of her khaki hunter's vest to reveal a scar that ran from under her ear to her collar bone.
"How did that happen?"
"After my mother died, Dad got drunk. Tried to rape me. Cut me when I fought back."
"That's one hell of a family you got there."
"Had. Mother dead. Father dead. Grandfather dead. Grandmother run off. Brother killed. Mercenary in Iraq."
"Do you have anything to go home to?
"Farm mine," Heather said with pride. "Grandmother's will left it to me."
"I take it this is the other grandmother, not the one that ran off?"
"Yeah, mother's mother."
Witch sighed. "What a mess."
"What happens if you do not go back?"
"How old are you?"
"Eighteen day after tomorrow."
Witch shook her head. "We're going to get you back to civilization so you can claim your farm, because if you don't someone will steal it from you."
"Can't stay here? Safe here with you."
"No. You won't be any safer here than you would be there."
Heather looked up. "Raining."
Witch led Heather into the shelter. No sooner had they closed the flap behind themselves than the heavy rain started. Lighting cracked all around them, but they stayed protected by the oak trees and the aluminium boat over their heads.
Heather was surprised by the small shelter's contents. The army style folding cot she expected, but the tall book case that held up the back end of the boat was a surprise. She walked directly to it. The boat that made up the roof was high enough that she could stand easily without stooping. She pulled a book from the shelf and read its cover out loud. "Native Medicinal Plants." She pulled another. "Edible Wild Flowers." She pulled another. "Hunting for Survival." She flipped through the pages of several books. She scanned the bindings on the books. "No magic." Heather's brow furrowed in confusion. "Why no magic?"
"Because, in spite of what the ignorant fool hunters who wander through here would have you believe, I am not a witch."
"There is no such thing as magic. There is only hard work."
Heather shook her head. "Not true."
"Oh, there is the magic in a young girl's heart when the music is groovy."
"You tease me!"
"Yes, I did."
"You told me to call you 'Witch'. Why?"
"Because that's what you wanted to believe."
Heather sat on the cot and looked at the books. "No magic. Hard work. Books. Why here?"
"Let's just say that when I knew I had to go into hiding, I had time to make preparations. As they say, luck favours the prepared. I had the time and the money to improve my chances of survival. If I hadn't prepared, I would have died. As it was, I almost did die a couple of times. The first six months out here were horrible. Until I learned to understand the noises the animals make, I was afraid all the time. Now, they tell me when danger is near."
"Animals talk to you?"
"No, they talk to each other. Mostly they talk to others of their own kind. If you pay attention, you can hear the differences in their calls. That's how I knew you were coming."
"Listening to birds?"
"And that really loud boat motor."
"Are you hungry, now?"
Witch opened the lid on what had once been the box on the back of a pickup truck. It was buried in the dirt so it was out of sight except for the very top which was bolted shut.
"Makes it harder for the bears to smell it."
"Why do you hide?"
"It's a long story."
"Not better to confront your enemy?"
"No, this is safer. Here, take this. Meat, starch and veggies. A balanced meal."
Heather looked at the smoked piece of meat, the raw root and the raw greens and shuddered. "Rattlesnake."
"Would you rather alligator tail?"
"No, thank you. I will eat and be happy."
Heather tore off a piece of the rattlesnake meat and chewed it slowly. She drank from her tin as she ate the meat.
"Does it hurt to eat, too?" Witch asked.
"Not your fault."
"I know, I wish I had something softer for you to eat."
Heather smiled. "No worries."
Heather and Witch ate in silence listening to the rain pour on to the leafy canopy overhead safe and dry by the light of a single candle under the boat that formed their roof. Witch spread some old blue FEMA tarps on the floor and stretched out. Heather lay down on the cot and fell asleep.