Life on the Bayou

“Did you see a black dog?” I asked. Since there are notices all over the park about keeping your dog on a leash, I added hastily, “He’s usually really good. Just stays at my side. But we were crossing the bridge and he saw something. Jumped into the water and tore off through the swamp. Don’t know what got into him.”

The guy shook his skinny head and adjusted the sweat-stained visor of his Alabama baseball cap. “Man, that’s no good. There’s a gator in there. I heard it.”

Damn. That was an alligator? I had heard something shrieking. At worst I figured Farley had raided a whooping crane nest or something. “Aw, Jeez. Is that what that was?”

The man narrowed his light blue eyes and nodded knowingly

“Well,” I sighed. “Guess he might learn a hard lesson today.”

“If he don’t get eaten,” the man said cheerily, passing on the trail.

I ran back over the bridge and to the edge of the swamp on the other side. I could just see Farley leaping out of the water at the far end. He was splashing in the shallows, his head down, intent on something.

“Farley!” I yelled. “You shithead,” I added under my breath. He never even looked up. I fought through the tangle of brambles and regained the sandy path that led around the swamp. A woman was sitting peacefully on one of the benches, her dachshund lying happily at her feet on his leash. She glanced up in alarm as I crashed through the bushes and rushed around the edge of the swamp.

“Dog,” I smiled at her as an explanation. “In the swamp.” I finally found a break in the rushes and prickly bushes and pushed my way to a sandy stretch that looked deceptively dry before it slid into quicksand, knocking my hat off and blinding myself in one eye with a sharp branch in the process. Farley was fifty feet back toward the bridge, up on a small hammock. My heart stopped. He was tossing an animal about two feet long in to the air and then pouncing on it, locked in a fight with something I couldn’t quite see in the rushes. Oh, god, even if it was only a two-foot alligator, how much damage could it do?

I crashed back through the bushes, ran to about where Farley was, only vaguely aware of the woman with the dachshund staring at me in terror. I covered my head and plowed through the thick underbrush until I got to the water. Farley heard me, dipped his head into the bushes, and trotted through the shallow water toward me, proudly carrying a dead animal in his mouth. The painting of a noble retriever I’d once seen, a shot pheasant in its mouth, walking confidently toward its master/hunter came to mind. But instead of a pheasant, this thing looked like a giant rat.

“Good boy,” I enthused, as Farley sloshed soggily toward me. Then, about a foot away, with no explanation, he veered off and ran around the rim of the swamp and plunged into the fetid mud with his prize. He plopped it down unceremoniously and headed back into the water, splashing noisily and racing back toward the hammock. I took a step into the muck and instantly sank up to my ankle. Pulling that foot out with a loud sucking noise, I tried to find relatively dry footholds and slogged my way to the body. It still looked like a giant rat, with large yellow incisors sticking out of its tiny mouth. I nudged it with my toe tentatively, but it was most definitely not pining for the fjords. It was dead.

I turned my attention back to Farley, who had now crossed the swamp and was loping, his head down, wolf-like, around the far edge. I cringed as white herons flew up squawking as he blasted through their nesting area. “Farley” I yelled again. He ignored me.

I retreated back through the brush and regained the sandy path. Defeated, I walked to one of the benches and sat down, noticing that the woman with the dachshund had left the scene, no doubt dialing 911 as he fled. As I sat down dejectedly, Farley trotted out of the swamp toward me. I got up, and as he got closer I saw that the side of his nose was bleeding. That muskrat, or whatever it was, hadn’t gone down without a fight. Farley charged into the bay and sank gently into the salt water. “Come on, Farley,” I said hopefully. “Time to go home. Treat?”

That got a glimmer of interest, but then he lowered his head again, dashed by me and headed back for the swamp. I sighed, made my way back to the edge of the water and tried to keep an eye on him as he crashed and splashed from one end of the hundred-yard inlet to the other, climbing over hammocks, trotting across mud flats, diving through rustling reeds and generally terrorizing the ecosystem. I lay back and stared at the cloudless sky, noticing how nice and warm the sun was.

After 15 minutes, I realized I had to do something. I trudged back down the beach toward the bridge, where I’d last heard the great black hunter flopping around in the shallows. I noticed a young mother with her daughter flying a kite from the beach, the soft breeze of the bay perfect for getting the colorful triangle aloft.

“Hi,” I nodded distractedly.

The woman noticed the blue wind-up lead in my hand. “Is that big black dog yours? The one that’s splashing around in the swamp?”

I was trying to decide if I could get away with lying or not when the girl commented, “He killed a nutria.”

“He did?” I choked, thinking — nutria. That’s what it is. “How did you know that?”

She held the kite string in one hand and pointed to the first bench with the other. “The body’s over there.”

“Great,” I groaned, the body. I figured he’d dragged the nutria out of the swamp and deposited it in the single place most likely to be frequented by tots screaming in horror and their equally horrified parents.

“He’s just hunting, the woman said mildly. “Just doing what comes natural.”

“Thanks,” I said, with genuine gratitude. “But I’m not sure other visitors to the park are going to be so quite so understanding.”

I ran over to the furry ball by the bench. I couldn’t leave the dead nutria there. I’d take it across the bridge and throw it into the water. I grabbed the thing by its thick, hairless tail. It was surprisingly heavy. I climbed the step onto the boardwalk as an older couple strode over the bridge. They looked at me and the giant rat I was holding upside down. They were not smiling.

“Is that your big black dog in the swamp?” The woman demanded.

I hesitated. Yes? No? Maybe?

The man pointed to the carcass in my hand. “He’s killed a second nutria,” he added.

“A second one,” I squeaked. “You sure?”

“It’s at the end of the bridge on the other side,” the woman informed me coldly.

I hurried past the couple across the bridge and jumped down onto the sandy bed below. The stream here was running briskly and the water was clear. I headed along the edge and threw the one incriminating nutria body into the water and started looking for the other. I glanced up the river toward the swamp. Farley stood 30 feet away, another giant rat dangling from his jaws. The only way to get to him was by wading through two feet of water. I plunged into the cold water, murmuring “Good dog, Farley! Wow, what a hunter. Can I see your nutria?”

Farley eyed me cautiously but let me approach. I was just two feet away. “Good boy!” Farley looked at me, pride in his wild blue eyes. I grabbed him by the collar and quickly hooked the leash onto the ring.

“Now let’s beat it.” I sloshed back across the river, Farley behind me, carrying the limp carcass in his mouth. We made the shore in seconds.

“Farley,” I hissed. “You’ve got to leave the damned nutria here. There’s probably a SWAT team after us already. Drop it and let’s get the hell out of here.”

Farley looked up at me as if he actually got it. He dropped the furry rat on the shore, not far from its equally dead partner, and we clambered up the bank onto the road to the park entrance and ran. To avoid irate citizens with pitchforks or civic-minded park ranger with assault rifles alarmed at rumors of a child-eating wolf in the swamp, we dodged up an Eagle Scout trail and trotted toward the parking lot. Just as we headed up the last rise to our car, we met a couple with a medium-sized dog off leash. The woman had a green pack of Pall Mall cigarettes poking out of her shirt pocket.

“Oh,” the young man said, startled. “Billy here is off the lead because we don’t normally meet people on the trails.”

“That’s OK,” I assured him. “Really, it is so OK.

The woman eyed Farley. “Looks like he’s been swimmin’”

“Yeah, sorta. Jumped in the swamp and brought back a dead nutria.”

She crinkled up her nose. “Disgusting.”

Farley was cozying up the other dog’s behind. I yanked on the leash. “C’mon, Farley,” I snarled.

The couple headed down the trail. “Y’all have a nice day,” the woman called back.

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Don Sawyer

Don Sawyer

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I am an educator and author. I have worked in West Africa and the Caribbean and my op-eds have appeared in most Canadian dailies. See northerned.com.