“I heard Frogman’s a pervert,” Raff came back. “He does things to little boys, you know.”
“Like doing what?”
“You know, does weird things to them.”
“Jesus, Raff, you really stink.” Sixteen-year-old Junior, Raff’s senior by a full year, decided to take a more mature approach to his cousin. He put on an indignant expression and shook his head slowly, as though surprised at such ignorance. “Maybe you heard somethin’ like that somewhere, but if that was true, don’t you think he’d be sittin’ up there in Monroeville Prison right now?”
Raff kept silent, and Junior went on. “Don’t be a yellowbelly. We’ll take off first thing in the morning, get to the river through the Johnson Farm. I know where we can borrow a boat on the floodbank down there. Then we’ll float on downstream a few miles, and pull over at the Potomo Landing. Be home by supper, no sweat.”
“My parents would kill me if they found out. They already think you’re going to get me into trouble. They don’t like me to go out with you anywhere.”
“Tell ’em that you and I goin’ to spend a day at Lake Nokobee. Say we’re goin’ to go fish for bream. They won’t give it a second thought.”
two days later Junior picked Raff up at eight in the morning. The two boys, after giving earnest assurances and promises to Raff’s mother, rode their bikes northeast out of Clayville on Alabama 128 and onto a small county spur. There was almost no traffic; only two vehicles passed them going the other way, both loaded with croaker sacks of green tomatoes. The boys arrived at a forest-lined stream on the edge of the Johnson Farm, then hid their bicycles behind a dense clump of shrubs and weeds just off the road overpass. They climbed down to the edge of the stream, took off their shoes, rolled their pants up to their knees, and waded into the clear, smooth-running water. They enjoyed the feel of the sand between their toes and the scattered smooth pebbles of the bottom against the soles of their feet.
As they headed downstream, in the direction of the Chicobee, they saw small fish dart for protection into clumps of eelgrass and the hollows of the overhanging bank. A mud turtle, green-streaked with algae, remained still on the bottom as they walked past. A ribbon snake dropped into the water from an overhanging branch and swam swiftly out of sight. A red-shouldered hawk took off from overhead, screeching loudly. They looked up and spotted its nest, almost hidden from sight in the canopy.
“It’s past the nesting season,” Raff said.
Farther down, the water quieted and deepened into a pool to above their knees. The boys climbed up onto the bank, put their shoes back on, and walked along the overgrown trace of a trail. Whenever the trail petered out, they pushed their way through the thick understory along the watercourse as best they could.
After a mile or so the stream broadened and grew shallow again. It was partly diverted to one side by a thicket of cattails surrounding a small pond. The woods changed into widely spaced water oak, cypress, and trees of other kinds that dominate the coastal floodplain forest. The boys walked on carefully, heading diagonally away from the increasingly muddy bottom of the stream.
“Watch out for quicksand,” Junior warned.
Raff fell in behind him, thinking that if they stumbled into something of the sort, Junior would be the first to sink. They proceeded in tandem like that, pressing on toward the river, hopping over little pools and easing their way around slick muckbeds.
Finally the Chicobee itself came into sight. The river’s surface shimmered a silvery blue-green in the midmorning sunlight. As far as they could see up and down, it was walled in by the tops of floodplain tree canopies that rolled down like green waves to touch its surface.
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