We walked back out to Dinkins Road and stared at the ominous-looking gate, two hundred yards away. Jeb’s curiosity was bubbling over.
“Hey Jeb! See that gate?”
“Yeah, Kid. That’s the swamp, right? They really don’t want anyone in there, do they?”
“Too true. There’s an official entrance for tourists about ten miles south of here, so the Feds have put a big lock and chain on this gate. But I know at least a couple of other ways in, if you’re cagey. If you like, in a couple of days, I’ll show you.”
“Yeah, I’d really like to do that.”
“I don’t go in too much. It’s pretty dangerous if you’re not careful, and it’s off-limits. Pappy’s rules.”
We hadn’t gone twenty feet past our gate and I thought Jeb was pondering what I had said about Okefenokee. But he surprised me by asking, “So, who is Uncle Bob?”
“Well, you know, that’s a good question. Who is Uncle Bob? He ain’t no real uncle of anybody livin’ ‘round here, but everybody calls him ‘Uncle Bob’. Nobody knows where he comes from, and no-one seems willin’ to ask. He’s been here all my life and I sometimes get the feelin’ he’s been here since the Seminoles left, couple of hundred years ago. That’s silly of course. He’s big, old and gruff, and you gotta talk nice to him or he’ll...well, I don’t know what he’ll do. He’s friendly enough with me but when I was young, I used to be real scared of him.
“He and Pappy are good friends and they often go off and do things together. Sometimes, in the dead of night, I hear the flatbed start up. A minute later the lights come on at Uncle Bob’s, but soon the truck leaves there too. When I get up, they’re always back at Uncle Bob’s again. Don’t know what they’re doin’ but I’ve got my suspicions.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’d swear the flatbed smelled of swamp water on the mornin’ after. Okefenokee’s got a real distinct odor.”
Jeb’s eyes lit up. “Hey, Kid! That means they went into the swamp during the night, right? Did they find another way in?”
“Ain’t no way in for a truck, other than straight ahead down Dinkins Road. I know! I looked! Once I got real suspicious, so the followin’ mornin’ I walked down and checked the gate. Locked up tight, chains all in place. But they went in alright. I could see the tracks of the flatbed goin’ right through, right under the gate. Left rear tire’s got a gash in it.”
“What do you think they did in there?”
“For a couple of years I didn’t know, and I was real curious. Then one day when we were up at Folkston market, I heard Pappy and Uncle Bob talkin’ to Pete from over that-a-way. They were whisperin’ about some of the meat that Uncle Bob brought up to sell. I heard Pete say that it was ‘gator meat.”
“The thing is, there ain’t no ‘gators around here ‘cept in Okefenokee. I’m sure Pappy and Uncle Bob been poachin’. That ain’t legal. Now, I didn’t tell you nothin’. You gotta promise you won’t breathe a word of it.”
Jeb replied, “I won’t say a word. But you know, Kid, my Pa used to do a little alligator poaching too, off the Bayou. Once or twice, after I grew up, they let me go with them. That was exciting! And...I like the taste of alligator meat! Ever tried it?”
“Don’t know for sure if I’ve ever eaten it, but I prob’ly have. Hey Cousin! Tastes like chicken. Right?”
Jeb saw I was kidding him. “Naw! More like varmint I’d say.”
“Anyway, you’re going to tell me about Uncle Bob. He sounds very strange.”
“Uncle Bob is strange. He does lots of things for folks around Coopersville and, if you know what’s good for you, you don’t ask what. People call him Uncle Bob, the Butcher. I guess, bein’ a butcher, he needs a place to do his butcherin’ so, a few years ago, he and Pappy converted his basement into an abattoir. Know what an abattoir is, Jeb?”
“I think so,” replied Jeb. “Isn’t that a kind of slaughtering and meat packing plant?”
“Yeah. With Uncle Bob it’s more complicated than that. I don’t think anyone, ‘cept Pappy, has ever been downstairs in his abattoir, but everyone knows it’s there. Folks wink at us kids when they bring their farm animals over for butcherin’, like Pappy bringin’ his chickens. It’s all hush-hush. Nobody really talks about it.
“Meat packin’s strictly controlled by Georgia State, and I’m pretty sure Uncle Bob ain’t licensed. Besides, as you’re startin’ to realize, Uncle Bob butchers far more than farm animals. I’m positive that one of his side-lines is ‘gator meat. Folks around here like to go huntin’, not always abidin’ by what’s in season. Others do some swamp poachin’ too. Nothin’s legal to hunt in Okefenokee. When you get a package of meat from Uncle Bob, you better be sure what’s wrapped up.
“Uncle Bob also has a front, a legitimate business that he shows off to the State Inspectors when they come prowlin’. He runs a small hog farm. His pork chops and bacon – mmm – the best around here. He’ll show us that part, if he’s home and if he likes you.”
Jeb interrupted, “What does Uncle Bob do with the scrap from the butchering? There must be a lot of skin and bones and stuff.”
“Remember when I told you the folks ‘round here ran electricity and water all the way from Coopersville, but they were caught tryin’ to run sewer lines and had to stop. Everybody stopped ‘cept Uncle Bob.
“Now I don’t know this for sure, but I think Uncle Bob used Pappy’s back-hoe to dig a line the hundred yards or so into the swamp. Nobody thinks I know, but I found the other end once when I was in the swamp, couple of years back. It ain’t for poop or nothin’; Uncle Bob’s also got a septic tank. The pipe is there to take the ground up parts of his butcherin’ away. My guess is he normally pumps it at night, but I noticed it that one day because of all the animals feedin’ off the tailin’s. Nothin’ lasts long in the swamp.”
Uncle Bob’s place was ahead on the right, quite far back from the road. You couldn’t quite see his house amongst the cluster of trees and shrubs surrounding it, but you knew it was there.
“When I was very young, that house used to frighten me. It looks so dark and scary, being completely hidden from view. You can’t get near the house before lights come on everywhere, and a bell rings loudly. As I get older, I realize that’s Uncle Bob’s intention. He wants to know when company’s comin’.”
We were just turning in to Uncle Bob’s yard, when I warned Jeb, “Remember, you know nothin’ about any ‘gator poachin’, no abattoir, and no sewer line. We’re friendly neighbors comin’ to call for a visit.”
Jeb said, “Gotcha!” as the lights came on and the bell went off. Uncle Bob was at the door before we got there.
“Who’s ‘at come callin’?” he growled.
“It’s me, Uncle Bob, and my new friend, Cousin Jeb.”
“Well, come closer so’s I can get a good look at’cha. Oh, it’s you Caleb.
“I told you, Uncle Bob. This here’s my cousin from New Orleans, Jebediah Bilodeau. That right, Jeb?”
“You were nearly right. I’m from N’Orlins, not New Orleans. Pleased to meet you Uncle Bob. You can call me ‘Jeb’.”
Jeb gave this huge deep bow and Uncle Bob smiled.
“Jeb is livin’ with us now ‘cause his Ma and Pa were killed by Katrina.”
“Oh, that’s terrible! How’d it happen?” commented Uncle Bob. Without waiting for an answer, Uncle Bob clapped a huge arm around Jeb’s shoulder; nearly scared the life out of me.
He shook his head and said, “Well, don’t stand out here on the veranda, you two c’mon in. Any friend of Caleb’s is a friend of mine. I got some bacon and eggs fryin’ and yer welcome to share some with me, unless yer Pappy’s waitin’ on ya fer supper.”
“Naw! There’s some leftover casserole in the fridge, and when he gets hungry he’ll find it. Jeb and I would love to share some of your great bacon. And I take it those eggs are ones I carefully lifted from some irate hens this mornin’.”
Uncle Bob grinned and said, “C’mon in and set yerselves down, boys. When we’re done, I’ll show you ‘round my hog farm. It’s what I do, Jeb. Don’t bring in much money but I enjoy workin’ with them pigs. What’d your Pa do in N’Orlins, ‘fore Katrina took him?”
I couldn’t believe my ears with what next came out of Jeb’s mouth. He said, “Pa was a car mechanic, but in his spare time he used to do some alligator poaching from the swamp, just off the Bayou, and he sometimes took me with him. It was scary but fun.”
Uncle Bob was busy turning bacon at the stove, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed his head jerk up as he glanced quickly over at Cousin Jeb. Jeb was smart. He pretended not to notice Uncle Bob’s reaction and continued sprinkling pepper on his plate of eggs. I didn’t know where to look or what to say. Trouble was coming, for sure. And there was an awful lot of pepper on Jeb’s eggs.
Jeb carried on, “And on Saturday nights, Pa and Ma got together a zydeco band and played all up and down the Bayou. Pa played the squeeze-box and Ma strummed the washboard.”
Silence! I waited for the dam to burst. Slowly, Uncle Bob left the bacon on the stove and came over to the two of us at the table. I checked both his hands to see if he was holding one of his huge butcher’s knives. He wasn’t. And his hands weren’t twitching with tension. We were probably safe for the moment.
He looked down at Jeb and said, “’Gator poachin’ huh? That’s pretty dangerous stuff, Son. I understand ‘gator poachin’ is completely illegal in Louisiana, just like it is here. Wouldn’t catch me doin’ stuff like that, no siree. I’m happy with my hog farm and smokin’ bacon. No siree. Not for me.”
Jeb, with his innocent, big blue eyes, looked straight up into Uncle Bob’s face and said, “Pa never told me it was illegal.”
I got up. My knees were like jelly. I was shaking so much I could hardly walk as I made my way over to the stove and started playing with the bacon. I didn’t dare look at either of them. My heart was pounding so hard I couldn’t hear what they were talking about. I could hardly control myself. Was I going to burst out laughing, or was I going to run outside screaming in fear, as Uncle Bob found his butcher’s knife and chased after us? Or was I going to have a heart-attack, right there?
None of those things happened. I calmed down and went back to the table where Jeb and I silently winked at each other. I was ready to burst and I’m sure Jeb felt the same. Uncle Bob returned to the stove and nonchalantly sauntered over with his huge pan of hot bacon.
The three of us sat down to eat and Uncle Bob said innocently, “Do you like the bacon, Jeb? I’m real proud of it. Get them eggs and bacon inside ya, and I’ll show ya my pigs and smokehouse out back.”
Crisis over! It was as though no-one even mentioned the word alligator.
A few minutes later, we all went out back to look over Uncle Bob’s hogs. He had a few varieties and spent the next hour describing, in detail, all the ramifications of hog farming – an endless, boring story that I’d heard many times before. Jeb appeared to be listening in rapt attention, but I wondered. Uncle Bob had his spiel down pat, and gave it to the state inspectors whenever they came snooping – a regular event. Nobody ever quite believed him. Even the inspectors were sure there was something else going on, but they hadn’t found anything.
We went to the smokehouse and saw about thirty racks of pork ribs hanging, on the way to becoming bacon. Uncle Bob was always ready for the expected questions and Jeb obliged.
“So, do you slaughter and butcher the pigs right here? I see a large marble slab in that shed there.”
Jeb did it again. And he was the picture of innocence.
All wide-eyed, Uncle Bob replied, “Oh no, Son! That’d be illegal. Pappy helps me cage a few choice hogs. We load ‘em on the flatbed then haul ‘em off to Folkston to the abattoir. They butcher ‘em under the watchful eye of the state inspectors, hang ‘em, and later we bring all the meat back here. Rib racks go in the smokehouse to become bacon. The other meat goes into my freezers. I cut up the bacon and other pork joints for the folks ‘round here. Everybody likes my pork and bacon.”
We finally bid farewell to Uncle Bob. He was standing on his veranda grinning from ear to ear. Cousin Jeb and Uncle Bob – new found friends. Who would have thought it?
Uncle Bob disappeared back inside his house. We both completely held our breath as we walked up his front path. With wobbly legs, it was an awful long walk for Jeb and me. We finally made it to Dinkins Road, rounded his gate and stopped, out of sight behind a big mulberry bush. We slowly let out our breath. Jeb was beet red and I’m sure I was the same. Then the laughter began. For five minutes, we couldn’t stop.
Jeb finally got a word out, “Unbelievable! Totally unbelievable!”
I gasped, “I thought I’d die in there. What made you talk about ‘gator poachin’? Did you see his reaction? And then you did it again talkin’ ‘bout butcherin’ hogs. I tell you we’re lucky he didn’t skin, bone, and carve us up on that big marble slab of his. Or you at least. You deserved it.”
“Kid. I can’t believe what happened in there. He’s a big, growly old man. He really scared me when he put his arm around my shoulder. I thought he was going to pound me into the floor. He could have done it. He’s very strong.
“And did you notice? Inside the house? Every single door has either a Yale lock on it or a padlock. Why? He’s hiding a lot of things in those rooms. One of those doors must have been the stairs to his abattoir.
“When I mentioned that my Pa went alligator poaching, his head jerked and he quickly turned to look at me. Did you see that insanely wild and angry look he had? He bottled it up quickly but he’s a scary old man. I wouldn’t want to cross him.”
I chuckled, “I’ve just spent the scariest hour of my life and it’s all your fault.”
“Yeah. I don’t want to do that again. I went too far, but I couldn’t help myself.”
We both managed to calm down and I said, “Well, it’s almost dusk and too late to go up to Coopersville today. What do you say we stroll down and have a look at Okefenokee up close, before it gets dark? I can see you really want to have a glimpse of the swamp.”
“I would like to have a close-up look. Swamps intrigue me. I don’t know why. Always have since I was old enough to go prowling around our swamps off the Bayou. So much happens in there.”
We walked down to the gate. From the gate, a barbed-wire fence went off in both directions. The air was full of the sounds of hundreds of birds, and animals. We didn’t talk much. Jeb was becoming very focused on the things around him. The only thing spoken between us was his comment, “Yes, the Okefenokee really does have a distinct smell, not unpleasant but not great, either.” He toyed with the lock and chains securing the gate and mumbled, “They sure don’t want anyone in. And look at that barbed-wire. Probably goes right around the swamp.”
“Don’t know for sure but it’s everywhere I’ve seen. Is it to keep animals in or to keep humans out? Some of each, I guess.”
Jeb joked, “That’s good. You don’t want to be chasing alligators out of your chicken coop.”
“Or panthers,” I added.
We were quiet on the walk back home except when Jeb asked, “Hey, Kid! Do you smoke?”
“Not really. Well, sometimes. If you want one, I have something here in my pocket.”
I pulled out this strange looking thing that looked a bit like an old roach. Jeb looked at me, startled, “What the heck is that? I didn’t mean marijuana. I was just asking about a plain cigarette.”
“This is a plain cigarette. Me and some of my buddies pick a couple of tobacco leaves from the farms around here. We bring them home, dry them in the sun, crumble up one and roll it in another leaf and there you have a cigarette. Want to try it?”
“I don’t know. Okay. I’ll try anything once.”
He lit it, and the smoke it gave off smelled awful.
He took one puff and gasped, “Oh no! Horrible! Terrible! I can understand why you don’t smoke. Why don’t you try a real cigarette?”
“I’m only fifteen and nobody up in Coopersville will sell me any. And I don’t really care about it anyway.”
By the time we got home, it was nearly dark. Pappy was sitting out on the veranda in his rocker enjoying the evening air, as the day cooled. As usual he was puffing on his old pipe.
“Where’d you two git to today. Ain’t seen ya since early on.”
“I took Jeb to meet Uncle Bob. He gave us some bacon and eggs and showed us ‘round his hog farm. You find that casserole all right?”
“Yep. Weren’t too bad after yer heated it up a spell. You go down to the gate?”
“Yeah. I wanted to show Jeb what the swamp looked like up close.”
Like a clam, Pappy’s jaw snapped shut in a thin straight line. His eyes glistened as he looked me square in the face, as if daring me to challenge him. And, as always, when he got angry with me, he pulled his old fedora down, nearly covering his left eye. “Thought so. I’ve told yer, time and agin, not to go down there. That swamp is off-limits. Feds is always patrollin’ and if we gits caught, we gits fined.”
“We didn’t go in.”
“Don’t seem to matter none. If yer close they think yer went in and they ding you. Stay away!”
Then he relaxed. “Say Jeb. What’d yer think of Uncle Bob?”
“Seemed a bit scary at first but I grew to like him, and his bacon is fantastic. What does he do besides his hog farming?”
Pappy kind of jumped, “Don’t ask. Don’t ever ask. Gittin’ kinda dark. Reckon I’ll turn in. ‘Round these parts Jeb, we goes to bed with the sun, and gits up with the sun, leastways I do.”
I said, “I don’t know if we want to go to bed yet. How about some TV, Jeb?”
“Keep the sound turned right down.”
Jeb and I watched an hour or two of some sit-coms and then decided it was our time for bed. Pappy had extended the lower bunk for Jeb and he built a small ladder for me to climb up to the top bunk. The bunk looked silly and a bit rickety but we climbed in anyway and were soon asleep.
About midnight I heard Jeb whispering to me, “You awake, Kid? Are you awake?”
“Yeah. What’s up Jeb?”
“Do you ever think about your Mammy?”
“Sometimes. Not so much these days. You thinkin’ about your Ma and Pa?”
“Yeah, it’s still fresh, and I’m feeling pretty bad right now.”
“I know. The nighttime is the hardest time. Think about Uncle Bob. That’ll make you forget your Ma and Pa for a while. That’s what I used to do, try to think about something else.”
“What? Think about Uncle Bob?”
“Well, no. That would give me nightmares.” I laughed.
A little while passed and I asked, “Jeb? I hope you don’t mind me askin’, but how come you don’t speak with a Cajun accent?”
Jeb thought for a while and replied, “My Ma always wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer. They saved all their money and sent me to a private boarding school, and that school worked hard to get rid of my Cajun accent. I used to get a slap on my knuckles whenever I said ‘y’all’ or forgot to end my verbs with a full ‘i-n-g’.
“The problem is, I don’t want to be a doctor or lawyer. I would like to be in a zydeco band like Pa and Ma, but mostly, I think I would like to be a major league baseball player. The coach of the White Sox thinks I can make it and he told me to look him up when I turn eighteen. What about you, Kid?”
“I ain’t sure Jeb. I like school and I think I would like to become a teacher, but I don’t know. I’m tryin’ to work on my South Georgia twang so I can get a teacher’s job anywhere.”
“Yeah, Kid. I noticed the difference when you got angry back there.” With that I rolled over and went back to sleep.