He fell silent again, the shotgun held steady, still pointed at the boys.
This too was an obvious dismissal, but Junior tried yet again. “We have to get movin’ along right away, but could we maybe just see Old Ben first? People say he’s the biggest gator in the world, like maybe twelve feet.”
“Fourteen,” Frogman shot back, lowering the shotgun a bit and speaking now in a normal voice.
Junior had broken through. Alligator pride was the key.
“Fourteen feet,” Frogman continued. “They used to be gators bigger’n that around here, but they all got shot out. You ain’t gonna see Old Ben, though. He comes out only at night. And he stays ’round here close to me. I watch over him, feed him catfish and frogs after I take they legs off.”
Frogman, it was widely known, used a headlamp to gig bullfrogs on the river at night, then took the legs the next morning to the nearest gas station and one-stop store at Potomo Landing. He walked overland, never took his boat, made enough off the sales to buy sundries. He rarely spoke, the store owners reported, and he never stayed more than a few minutes. Each time the owners and any customers were happy to see him leave.
Frogman fell silent once again.
Time to go, for sure. But as Junior started to leave, he turned around and pressed his luck again.
“We know we got to leave right away, sir, but could you tell us—have you ever seen the Chicobee Serpent?”
Frogman continued to stare at the boys, but Raff sensed that something had almost imperceptibly changed. Frogman passed his tongue once quickly over his lips as though preparing to speak. He worked his mouth around a little bit, and finally said, “Maybe I have. Maybe I haven’t.”
He paused for a moment more, then unleashed a veritable oration. “I’ve seen somethin’ big out there, always when it’s gittin’ dark, and heard some things too. It ain’t a gator, for sure. It ain’t no sturgeon either, come jumping out of the water big as a man. It might be a big old bull shark, come upriver out of the Gulf somewhere, long as a new-cut log, but I don’t think so. That kinda shark don’t break the surface, they come at you underwater.”
Raff knew, if Junior didn’t, that bull sharks are among the few species in the world that travel up rivers, and are also among the few that sometimes attack humans.
Frogman looked past the boys and seemed to be talking to himself. “But I seen somethin’. I heard somethin’.”
Junior and Raff were riveted. They waited for Frogman to continue, but he was done. His mouth tightened, his eyes squinted, and the ogre of the Chicobee returned.
“Now you get the hell off my land, and if ever I see either one of you little bastards come here again I’ll make you the sorriest you ever been your whole life.”
They walked backward to the landing, kowtowing, heads nodding, murmuring, “Yessir, yessir.” They quickly pushed the boat free, climbed in, and pushed off.
At the Potomo Landing, they worked the boat up onto the mud shore, walked up the grassy bank, and sat down next to
the bridge abutment in the shade of a giant live oak. Raff opened his knapsack and pulled out a lunch his mother had prepared for the two: peanut butter and strawberry jam in white-bread sandwiches, apples, and Hershey’s chocolate bars with almonds.
Raff and Junior then walked past the little convenience store and gas pump on down the one-lane blacktop Potomo Road until, twenty minutes later, they reached the crossing of the old Thomasville Railroad. They proceeded south along the track, sometimes hopping from one wooden tie to the next, sometimes navigating through the dense weeds growing on the embankment. When they came to State 27 they followed it southeast into Clayville. Along the way they agreed to hike the next day to the Johnson Farm to retrieve their bicycles. Then they exchanged solemn oaths never to tell their parents about their adventure, for fear of being grounded.
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