Sitting with his legs hanging out of the open boxcar door, Daryl lifted the left pants leg of his orange prison uniform and poked at the blood crusted on the thin piece of cloth, torn from his t-shirt, that was tied around his lower leg. He removed the cloth and wadded it, then threw it out over the rails of the wood trellis as the train slowly crossed the swamp. He prodded the scab on his leg, then lowered the pants leg. He swatted at a large mosquito that landed on his muscular forearm, but missed as the mosquito flew off.
“How’s that leg doin’?” Jackson asked from inside the boxcar where he sat against the wall.
“Scabbed over,” Daryl said. “Bullet did nothin’ but graze me.” He swatted at another mosquito. “These insects are more of a damned nuisance.”
“We’re right here in the middle of the swamp so what da ya ’spect?” Jackson said with a chuckle.
Looking out over a large grove of cypress trees smothered in Spanish moss and being choked by ubiquitous kudzu, Daryl said, “You sure you know a place out here where we can hide out for a spell?”
“Fever Island, they call it,” Jackson said. “Back in slave days it was where they put those who come down with the cholera or swamp fever until they died.”
“What if they didn’t die?” Daryl said.
“Oh, they died alright,” Jackson said. “One way or ’nother, they died.”
As the train left the trellis, Daryl laid on his back and stared at the roof of the boxcar. “You never told me, Jackson. How’d you end up in prison anyway?”
Jackson stood up and made his way across the rocking floor of the boxcar and stood holding onto the door frame. “Kilt a man up Baton Rouge way.”
“I’m guessin’ he asked for it?” Daryl said.
“Up until the moment just before I put a knife in him. Then he shut up, but by that time I had had my fill of him,” Jackson said. “Some people just don’t know when they’ve gone too far.”
Daryl smashed a mosquito that had been feeding on his neck. He pulled his hand away and gazed thoughtfully at the dead insect and the spot of blood in his palm. “What do mosquitoes do with the blood they get from ya?”
Jackson spat out into a wall of kudzu that lined the tracks. “It’s like us eatin’ soup, I guess,” he said. “I ’spect they crap it out.”
“Mosquitoes got assholes?” Daryl said with wonderment.
“I don’t know a creature that don’t got one,” Jackson said.
Suddenly the boxcar lurched forward then settled back. The train had come to a stop.
“Quick, this is where we get out,” Jackson said.
Daryl stood up and looked out the door. “They’re ain’t nothing here but swamp and kudzu. Where’s that island you’re taking us to?”
“You gotta go through the swamp to get to it,” Jackson said. “You comin’ or not?”
“I don’t really have a choice, now do I?” Daryl said.
Jackson jumped from the boxcar into a soggy bed of moss.
As Daryl leapt from the boxcar behind him his right shoe flew off and sank in the brackish water a few feet from the moss. “A man died givin’ up that shoe,” he said.
Bright moonlight streamed through the treetop canopy casting a blue light on the forest floor. Gossamer strands of Spanish moss that hung from the branches of the cottonwood trees waved gently in the steady hot breeze. Kudzu was wrapped around the trunk of almost every tree and completely blanketed the ground in spots. A mixture of sounds filled the air; the calls of whooping cranes, hooting owls, bullfrogs and the incessant buzzing of insects. The aroma of rotting plant life hung in the air.
“I have to stop,” Daryl said as he collapsed against the trunk of a cypress tree on the bank of the swamp. He had the top part of the uniform down and around his waist. Rivulets of sweat ran down his chest and back.
“They might have the hounds out lookin’ for us,” Jackson said.
“We’ve come too far to be worried ’bout that,” Daryl said as he sat on the moist ground.
“You don’t know how tenacious the law is when you’ve killed one of their guards, another prisoner and ’scaped one of their prisons the way we’ve done,” Jackson said.
Daryl raised his bare foot and looked at the sole and pulled out a thorn. “You never told me before we broke out that gettin’ to that Fever Island was goin’ to be anything like this.”
“You act like you’d never saw a swamp before,” Jackson said.
“Seen it, yes, gotten lost in it, no,” Daryl said.
Jackson knelt on the bank and bent over and put his lips to the water and drank. Raising back up he wiped his mouth with his forearm. “We ain’t lost.”
From a near distance the guttural roar of a cougar echoed in the forest. Daryl leaned back against the tree. “Let it eat me,” he said, “but I gotta get some shuteye.”
“I have half a mind to just leave your ass right here,” Jackson said.
“Try it and I’ll kill ya,” Daryl said.
“Then you’d be lost,” Jackson said. “I’m the one who knows how to get to Fever Island. You’d just die out here in this swamp.”
“Don’t be making bets with the devil about that,” Daryl said. He removed the remaining shoe and rubbed his foot. Surreptitiously he removed the shoe string and wadded it in the palm of his hand. He stretched out his legs and closed his eyes.
Daryl staggered onto the loose boards of the footbridge and gripped onto the rope handrails and began across. The bridge swayed with every step.
“This has got to be the island,” he said aloud. Looking over the handrails he watched as a large alligator surfaced for a moment in the murky water, then slid back under and out of sight.
On the opposite bank the land had been cleared of trees. On the broad patch of dirt were nine small dilapidated shacks, some gardens and chicken coops and a large pig pen. Goats were tethered to stakes and a few cows roamed about freely. Women were hanging wet clothes on rope lines and children were playing in the dirt. Men were tending the livestock and garden.
Daryl crossed the bridge and fell on his knees in the dirt. “Help me,” he said raspily.
A small crowd quickly surrounded him.
“Who you to be comin’ here?” an old, very tall thin man with piercing eyes and snow white hair, who was holding a club, asked.
“I’ve been lost in the woods goin’ on a week,” Daryl said. “I need food.”
The man turned and whispered to those around him, then turned back to Daryl. “You come here alone?”
“Yes,” Daryl said. “There was another man with me but he’s dead now.”
“We’ll give you some of our community stew,” the man said.
Two men from the group helped Daryl stand and held him by the arms as they walked to a small clearing between the shacks. In the middle of the clearing a large black cast iron pot was hanging on a rod above a small fire. Inside the pot a stew of carrots, turnips, beets, chicken and snake meat was boiling.
Daryl was seated on a rickety chair near the pot. His stomach churned as the aroma of the stew wafted his way. “That sure smells good,” he said.
An obese woman with black hair down to her waist stirred the stew with a long wooden spoon.
“Where’d you get those fine shoes?” she said.
Daryl looked down at the shoes he had taken off of Jackson’s feet. “They belonged to the man who was with me.”
“His name Jackson?” the old man with the piercing eyes asked.
“Yes,” Daryl stammered. “Did you know him?”
“He was my son,” the old man said. “Everyone on Fever Island put in a little money to buy those shoes for my son who was in prison.”
“We ’scaped together,” Daryl said.
“What kilt him?” the man asked.
“He just died,” Daryl said. “One minute he was breathin’ and the next minute he was dead.”
“Liar,” the old man said who raised the club and hit Daryl on the head.
Daryl fell off of the chair and onto the ground.
Daryl awoke to the sounds of voices around him. He opened his eyes and saw the faces of men, women and children looking at him. He then realized he was naked and spread eagle on the ground with his arms and legs tethered to posts.
The old man dangled the shoe lace over his face. “This lace we found in yer pocket is mighty strong. You kilt my son by stranglin’ him with this here to get his shoes didn’t ya?” he said.
“No, it didn’t happen like that at all,” Daryl said. “I told you. He just up and died.”
The man nodded and a little girl with wide eyes and a somber expression cut off the little finger of Daryl’s left hand with a blunt knife and tossed it into the stew pot.
Daryl screamed out in agony.
“You goin’ ta tell us the truth?” the old man said.
“I didn’t kill Jackson,” Daryl said.
“Liar, the old man said. He nodded at a middle aged woman wearing a tattered apron. She cut off Daryl’s right thumb with the rusted, jagged edge of a piece of metal.
Daryl screamed. “Okay, I kilt him. I used the only thing I had, that shoelace, and choked him to death. He was going to leave me in the swamp. I thought I was goin’ to die. But I didn’t die, did I? I found Fever Island all by myself.”
The old man nodded and the crowd descended on Daryl, chopping off body parts and tossing them into the stew pot until all that was left was the bloodstained dirt where Daryl had been.
Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over sixty short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. His plays have been produced in several states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and writes full time. He is on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012966314127 and Twitter @carrsteven960.