“George Murata found some pearls here in the lake,” said Otis. He burst into the bar where I was resting drinking a beer after a long day working on a gasser at Caddo Lake.
“Who the hell is George Murata?” I drawled. I looked at Otis, his face was black with oil slick, and he smelled of sweat and the swamp that rotted in the July heat of East Texas.
“He’s that Japanese cook working for Gulf, just like we do you idiot,” Otis coughed up a lung and wiped his face leaving a streak of black on his shirt sleeves.
I was a floor hand on gas rig # 28 while Otis was a derrickman on oil rig #19. He was about five years older than me. I managed to stay clean most the time, but Otis always looked like he’d been dipped in an ink well.
My papa and I had been scrabbling out a meager existence on a poor-producing cotton farm in Harrison County about twelve miles from the lake, while Otis had been a stable boy up in Jefferson. When the Savage Brothers has found oil and then natural gas in the oil field near Mooringsport in 1905, I was too young to get a job at the lake. Over the next few years, many of these wells blew out and a lot of men died. When Producer’s # 2 well blew out that year, the roar of the gas could be heard clear up in Marshall almost twenty miles away. When I started talking about making some real money, my mama would cry and I’d let it drop. Finally ,when I was seventeen our cotton yield was so poor, my mama finally gave in and I came to work on one of about forty-three gas and oil platforms lined along Caddo Lake on the border between Texas and Louisiana. Otis and I had met when we had both applied at Gulf Oil and Gas on the same day, and had been fast friends since.
“I don’t know none of them cooks,” I replied. I wasn’t much for gossip. My mama would cuff my ear if she ever heard I was talking bad about someone.
“He was fishin’ with mussels last month, opened one up and found a pearl. Then, he found another one He went and sold one of them to Tiffany’s in New York for $1,500!”
“He’s nuts fishing in the lake,” I said. “There’s an oil slick an inch thick on some parts.”
Although I didn’t say it, the reek of rotted vegetation in the swamp surrounding the lake in most places smelled like something dead. But I had to acknowledge, that was more money than my daddy made on the farm in five years.
Otis continued to look at me; he looked like he was ready to bust. That man couldn’t keep a secret if his mama’s life depended on it.
“What’s a Tiffany’s?” I said finally.
“Just the most expensive jewelry store in the whole United States in New York City,” Otis exclaimed, exasperated now.
“Good for George, whoever he is,” I said. “La-ti-dah. Those cooks make a lot less money than we do so maybe he deserves it.”
“Well, I was talkin’ to several of the guys,” Otis paused. Otis was a social butterfly, but I liked to more or less stay to myself.
“And,” I said. If I didn’t bite, he’d stand there staring at me all night. I wanted to get back to my beer which was not as cold now. The heavy, blistering July heat permeated everything.
“We’re all going out to Potter’s Point to camp. After we’re done work, we are going to go pearl divin’ and see if we can make some cash like ole’ George.”
I considered this for a moment. Unlike a lot of the men out on the rigs, I actually knew how to swim. But growing up around here I knew there were definitely better places to take a swim than Caddo Lake. Besides the oil slick and the stink, that lake had gators. On the banks and surrounding woods were cotton mouths and rattlers, not to mention swarms of mosquitos and gnats.
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
After a bad night playing cards where I lost half that week’s paycheck at the bar, I finally decided to give in to Otis’s harebrained scheme. I bought me a tent and set it up out on Potter’s Point with Otis and the boys. My mama was none too keen on the idea, but I was an adult now and finally put my foot down. I assured her I wouldn’t be gone be for long. I figured all of us would get discouraged after nights and weekends sludging through water lilies and bladderwort digging up mussels from the mud with our toes and cracking them open with our knives and hands. It made everyone’s feet and hands bleed, especially when the knife slipped, and the foreman at the well took no pity on those who were moonlighting on Potter’s Point.
By this time, I had so many skeeter bites, I looked like I had the old-fashioned pox or something. Otis’ face was so swollen he looked one of them fat-cheeked burlap dolls stuffed with cotton my mama used to make for my baby sister. We had been poking around in the lake for two weeks now. So many people had camped out on the Point by now, it was hard to find a place to search even though the lake was enormous. There were over a thousand people bumping into each other at the camp. Every once in a while, I’d hear a cry of victory from the lake, followed by a sigh of defeat. Some people found some pearls, but they was so small you needed spy glasses to actually see them.
After I had been at the Point for a week, Mrs. Stroud, a middle-aged woman with her hair always falling out of its pins, popped up out of the bladderwort screaming. I was about a hundred feet away and thought she had gotten tapped by a gator or bitten by a beaver. She started crying and laughing waving a huge mussel around. She had found a doozy. Her husband pulled her crying out of the lake, her voluminous skirts trying to hold her back like the lake didn’t want to give her up. She held onto that mussel and pearl like her life depending on it; maybe it did. I heard she sold it to the jeweler in Jefferson for $25.
That gave Otis and the others hope. I was ready to go back home. Otis kept wheedling me, so I agreed to go out one more Saturday.
“I ain’t hanging out near all these crowds,” I said to Otis.
I’d grown up in these parts, so I had an idea where we might go away from the crowd. There were several small inlets south of Swanson’s Landing. People tended to avoid this part of the lake since the Mittie Stevens, a steamboat coming across the lake to Jefferson from Shreveport, caught fire and burned to the waterline killing sixty people including some locals after the Civil War. Besides that, Caddo Lake had been the home to the Caddo Indians who had plenty of legends about ghosts and hauntings. All of East Texas was ghost crazy, but I thought it was just bunk. But it was enough to keep other people away, so it just might yield us some pearls and some money.
We snuck out at dawn, four of us, in an old flat-bottomed boat. It was me, Otis, and two friends of his he insisted come along. Otis swore they could keep their mouth shut. If they were friends of Otis’s, it was unlikely. But I knew Frank and Henry and they were alright. They were several years older than me and had families to feed. Neither of them had any luck finding any pearls so far. Besides, Henry had a boat, something neither Otis or I had.
The sun was coming up over the lake when we finally got a half a mile or so below Swanson’s Landing. The bald cypress trees here so thick they were like toothpicks lined up in a jar. A lot of them had Spanish moss surrounding their trunks like a mink stole on a rich man’s wife. The water lilies were so dense here, they parted as we paddled through them and closed back off again behind us.
Frank jumped off. The water near the edge of the lake was almost waist high. He grounded the boat on the swampy bank and tied it off on a cypress knee. All of us started stripping down to our drawers. Although it had to be 80 degrees and 80% humidity already, I felt a chill as I stood there on the on the boat looking towards the swamp. I started thinking of my Gram’s old stories about this part of Caddo Lake, but I shook it off. A new century had started; this was 1909, not 1809 and there weren’t no such things as ghosts, sea serpents, or scraggly furry beasts that walked like a man through the woods near Swanson’s Landing.
We dug with our toes in the mud for mussels all morning. We started at the tip of the swamp that poked out into the lake. Otis and I went one direction along the bank, and Frank and Henry went the other. We started out close to the bank and went one hundred yards or so to a stopping point we could recognize using landmarks in the swamp. Then we turned around and circled back about three feet further out towards the middle of the lake like walking a grid. We had done this at least five times before we stopped for a lunch break. We pulled out the strips of dried beef we had brought and some water and sat on some rounded cypress knees near the edge of the lake, putting our feet up to get them out of the water since they were pruny and bleeding. The ground at south of Swansons’ was too boggy to walk on. We rested, swatting constantly at the mosquitos that were attracted to our scratched-up legs and feet.
We worked at it all afternoon until the sun started to hit the top of the highest cypress trees lining the lake. By this time we were thirty feet out towards the middle and the water was up to our chests, so it was slow going. I was ready to pack it in; I’d been ready hours ago, when suddenly Frank gave out a whoop. He dunked himself down into the water which was muddy from us kicking it up with our feet. A few seconds later he popped up, his right hand outstretched like the finger of God, but coming up from the direction of hell instead. His head popped through and some bladderwort circled his head like a crown.
“I found one,” he whooped. He carefully rinsed off what he had in his hand in the water and walked towards the boat. We all stuck the tall sticks we had been using to balance ourselves in the muddy bottom of the lake bed to mark where we had stopped searching and followed him in.
He pulled a handkerchief out of his lunch pail and carefully wiped off the object in his hand. It was a pearl alright. It was perfectly round, white and large, just less than about a quarter inch in diameter. It didn’t look damaged at all.
“Where’s the mussel you found it in?” Otis asked.
“There ain’t no mussel,” Frank replied. “It was laying there all by itself on the bottom. Maybe the mussel died and released it?”
“What’re you Frank, the Princess and the Pea in that old fairy tale my momma used to tell me? How’d you feel that?”
“Just lucky. I squashed some mud through my toes and there is was stuck between my big toe and the next.” said Frank.
I hadn’t heard of this happening before, but I knew basically nothing about pearl diving or mussels and took Frank at his word. Frank rinsed the pearl again and put it between his teeth.
“Feels like a real pearl. It’s hard. A fake one would break apart.” Frank took the pearl it out of his teeth, wrapped it in an old handkerchief, and put it back in his lunch pail closing the lid tightly. He ripped off a piece of his old shirt and tied the pail to a hook on the boat.
“We goin’ ta split our finds fifty-fifty?” Henry said.
“Heck no Henry unless you find a really good one yourself. Then we’ll split and I’ll take yours and you take mine,” Frank said.
Now everyone else was raring to go. We still had of hour or so of daylight, and Otis had brought a lantern with him so we could find our way back in the dark.
Otis spoke up. “Now that that we found something, other than Frank’s pearl which doesn’t count, how’d all of you like to split whatever we get from this point on four ways?”
I didn’t care. I didn’t think we were likely to find anything else so I agreed, as did Frank and Henry. We all jumped back in the water and started digging into the mud with our toes again. The other three had got their second wind now, I just dug lackadaisically just counting the minutes until I could finally get back to my tent.
Henry left the area he had been searching and went back to where Frank had found his pearl. They were digging around in earnest now. About ten minutes later, Henry let out a yell and dove into the water. Almost a minute later, he popped back up.
“I found something, but it’s caught,” he gasped. “Frank, come on under and help me.”
A half a minute later they both popped up. Henry had something in his hand that was long, like a snake entangled with swamp vegetation and mud. He started rinsing it in the water and headed back to the boat. Henry dug into his lunch pail and pulled out a jar of clean water which he poured over the item on the edge of the boat.
“Whoee!!” said Henry.
It was a pearl necklace. There must have been thirty of the pearls the same size as the one Frank had found. At the middle of the broken strand, there was an even larger pearl that have been in the center before the necklace broke.
All of us started jumping up and down and dancing. Even I’d gotten into it by now. I never would’ve thought we’d find some small pearls, let alone something like this. But as I was jumping, I thought of something that made me nervous all of a sudden.
“Wait,” I said.
“What?” the three of them yelled looking at me. They couldn’t understand the look on my face. I knew I looked scared.
“The Mittie Stephens went down here.” I said.
“Who was Mittie Stephens?” said Otis.
“Not who, but what,” I said. “The Mittie Stephens was a steamboat built during the Civil War. After the war she transported passengers from New Orleans, up the Red River and across Caddo Lake to Jefferson. Some hay on the deck for the horses being transported caught on fire right below Swanson’s Landing, right about here. They tried to make land, but were grounded. The paddlewheel kept turning so people could not jump off and wade to shore. The ones that tried got crushed in the wheel. Sixty-one people died. The skeleton of the boat was still here when I was a boy.”
“Yawl still a boy and that necklace ain’t burned.” said Henry, holding it tight to his chest as if he was afraid I was going to throw it back.
“Maybe it fell off someone, or someone drowned,” said Frank who everyone knew was a bit superstitious. I think he was trying to convince himself more than us.
“Maybe someone jumped off and got stuck in the paddle wheel. If lots of people did that and got crushed, that could be why the necklace is broken.” I said.
“It could just be broken from being in the mud of the lake, or from when we pulled it out,” said Henry.
“Why don’t we see if we can find anything else there,” I said. “That may tell us something about where it came from.”
I turned back towards the lake. I saw something floating in the water out where Henry and Frank had been digging for pearls. It was tangled in swamp weed, but I could see a circular shape. It must be a buoy that had gotten loose and was floating on the top of the lake I waded out closer and I grabbed it—it felt like stone. I flipped it over and realized it was not a buoy; it was a skull with long dirty blonde hair still attached.
I screamed like my little sister did that time she was romping around our cotton farm and stepped on a rusty nail that went clear through her foot. Frank, Henry and Otis hurriedly waded out to see what I was yelling about.
Otis got there first and his eyes went wide.
“Is that what I think it is?” he said.
“It’s a skull.” I said. “The necklace must have been attached to it somehow and when Henry pulled it up, it came up out of the muddy bottom.”
Henry and Frank waded up noisily behind up flailing around in the water like a gator was after them. As they came up to where Otis and I were standing, something else bobbed up to the surface right near Otis’s right arm. This time Otis screamed like my little sister.
“It’s another bone!” he screeched. A skeletal hand cut off at the wrist was there in the water. No flesh covered its delicate bones.
“I done told you all about the Mittie Stephens. Now we’ve gone and disturbed someone who should have been left in peace.” I said.
Frank and Henry looked at each other. They didn’t seem squeamish at all.
They started digging with their feet frantically.
“What’re you doing,” I shouted.
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire Thomas,” Henry said to me. “Maybe she had a nice ring or something else down there.”
They continued to dig while Otis and I watched them. Finally Otis joined them. I just couldn’t.
“Come on Thomas,” Otis said. “Help us.”
“It’s grave robbing,” I said and I waded back to the boat and, clambered in and watched the three of them.
About twenty minutes later, I noticed it was starting to get dark. Suddenly Frank grunted and fell below the surface like he’d tripped over a cypress stump.
He popped up a minute later. “I found her!” he cried.
The three of them bobbed under the water and finally brought up what looked like large mud-covered log.
“Light the lantern Thomas and bring it here,” Otis called. “Bring that bucket too!”
I grudgingly got up from where I had been resting in the bottom of the boat, lit the lantern, and grabbed the bucket. I jumped back into the lake, my feet squelching in the mud. I waded back out to where the three of them standing. I held up the lantern and handed the bucket to Frank.
“Hold it up,” Frank said to me as he started to pour buckets of muddy water over the object they were holding.
Eventually, I could start to see that it was in fact a body; a headless one. There were scraps of mud-soaked material spreading out in the water around it. The flesh on the chest was dried and looked almost like the dried beef we had eaten earlier that day, I turned and gagged.
“Cut that out Thomas,” said Frank.” Hold up that lantern.”
The three of them checked the remains of the body for any other treasure. The legs were intact, but the flesh on the feet had long been nibbled away by the fishes. The arms were intact and one arm still had the hand attached; the other was missing. I knew it had to be the one that had floated up with the skull.
“Darn,” said Henry. “If she had any rings or bracelets, they must’ve have came off.” He started frantically digging into the muddy bottom with his feet.
By this time, Otis had finally saw the light.
“Let’s put her back on the bottom where we found her. It’s getting mighty dark out here.”
I looked up and realized the twilight was gone. There was no moon and it was cloudy. The stars that were always so clear out here at the lake were completely obscured. Maybe they were like me and didn’t want to see any further desecration of her body.
“We need to come back,” said Frank. “There still might be something here.”
I still just stood there in chest-deep water holding the lantern. They grabbed the corpse of the woman and dove under the water. She must not have been cooperating because each one of them bobbed up for air at least twice. Then Henry and Otis came up. We all waited until Frank popped up and then waded back to the boat.
“Hey give me your sticks,” said Frank. He was referring to the walking sticks we had made out of oak limbs that helped us keep our balance as we dug in the mud with our toes. He pushed the four sticks in the lake where we had reburied the remains of the woman. They stuck up from the surface of the water about a foot.
I was the first one in the boat. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I’d heard all of the ghost stories about this area; I didn’t believe them, but finding that corpse was more than I could take at this particular moment.
“Wait,” said Otis. “We can’t take the pearl necklace back to camp. Someone will steal it.”
He was right. Nothing was safe in that camp on Potter’s Point even if it was nailed down.
“How about we put it somewhere on your parent’s farm?” Otis said to me.
“No, “ I said, uneasy.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you Thomas, but I want it on neutral ground. Let’s find a place out here where we can bury it. We can use Frank’s lunch pail and mark it with a handkerchief,” said Henry.
“We need to take one of the pearls to see how much we can get for it. I don’t think Thomas should get an even share. He didn’t help us look at the end,” he continued.
Otis stood up for me, “That’s what we agreed to and we need to stick two it—split four ways.”
Frank nodded in agreement. “ A man’s word’s his bond,” he said.
“Alright,” said Henry.
“I’ll take the first one I found and take it to the jeweler in Jefferson my next day off,” said Frank.
They talked it over and I mostly listened. They decided to bury the pearl necklace quite a ways from where we found it. As we floated back towards camp, we came to an area that was not as swampy. Frank shone the lantern on the shore. There was a large oak tree that was hollowed out on the bottom.
“That’s our marker,” said Frank.
We paddled in, jumped out, beached the boat, and climbed on the shore. Frank held the lantern high and pointed. A foot or so behind the oak tree was a large marshmallow plant. They grew wild around here. Frank set the lantern down and grabbed the lid of his lunch pail that held the pearls and started digging. The land was moist, but not wet. The earthy smell of the dirt and swamp swelled around us.
Henry knelt down and helped him dig. When the hole was deep enough, Frank opened the handkerchief wrapper and pulled took out the first pearl he had had found. He stuck it in his mouth.
“Don’t you swallow that,” said Henry. Frank smiled, the pearl between his upper and lower teeth. As the lantern light wavered as the wind blew up, his face almost looked skeletal.
“Let’s go,” said Otis. “A storm’s blowing up.”
It was raining by the time we got back to the camp. I lay on the hard ground that night underneath my tent listening to the rain. The whole situation was making me uncomfortable, but I chased the thoughts away and finally fell asleep.
I was busy working on my rig the next six days and it was almost like our trip to the swamp never happened. Once night as I was sitting around the communal campfire out at Potter’s Point with Otis and Henry, Frank showed up. Against my better judgement, I’d let Otis talk me into staying at Potter’s Point a while longer.
“I went to that jeweler in Jefferson. He said he’d have to examine it. He thought he might give me $20 for the pearl but wanted to be sure,” said Frank.
“I hope you got a receipt,” said Otis.
Frank pulled a yellow scrap of paper out of his pocket which fluttered in the wind.
“I’m going back to the jeweler in Jefferson my next day off.”
A week passed by. Frank got in his boat and came out the rig where I was working.
“I asked for the afternoon off to go see that jeweler. I’m paddling up there now. The boss said as long as I worked tonight from six to ten to make up the time he won’t dock me.”
I saw Frank later that night paddling fiercely towards #37 oil rig on the lake where he worked. I waved at him and he waved back and patted his pocket in an exaggerated manner. I guess he got the money. I found I was not all that anxious to get it even though I was always broke. I glanced at my watch; it was 5:59.
A few hours later I was in my tent out at Potter’s Point. A noisy game of poker had been going on outside in the makeshift common area. I had no money to play, so I was reading even though the lantern burning made the heat almost unbearable, even with the tent flaps open.
All of a sudden out on the lake there was a loud “boom” and everyone went silent.
I ran out of my tent and saw Henry and Otis drop their cards, stand up, and look out over the lake. Smoke was rising from one of the rigs.
The bad feeling I had earlier in the day increased. Henry ran for his boat and Otis and I followed. We paddled furiously. We could hear smaller “booms” as we paddled toward the wellhead l that had smoke trailing from it. It was #37, Frank’s rig. When we got there, men were dropping off the rig like flies, their faces coated with black oil and smoke. We paddled up to one of the men that was in the water and pulled him into the boat. Other men from shore had brought out their boats and were doing the same. When all of the men we could find had been brought back and were laying dripping and gasping on the shore, Henry, Otis and I started to look for Frank. We couldn’t find him. We asked everyone.
Finally Jeb Mason, the #37 rig boss shook his head and pointed at one of the boats. We went over and pulled off the blanket that was covering the bottom of one of the canoes. Inside the boat was a man, horribly burned. Scraps of burned money stuck up from the pocket of his shredded, blackened shirt. It was Frank.
The three of us went back to my tent, in shock. As we were walking back to our tents, I could hear the crying and shrieking of Frank’s widow and three children down along the shore.
We crawled into the tent and I closed the flaps, trying to block out the sounds outside as well as to ensure were not overheard. Oil and gas workers were mighty superstitious.
“It’s just bad luck,” Henry said.
“Is it?” I said.
“Quit being so “woo-woo” Thomas. You says there’s no such thing as ghosts. Not sure about you all, but I need money,” said Otis. “I was losing bad tonight.”
“I need money, too, “ said Henry. “It’s my turn. I’ll paddle out to where we stashed the necklace, pull one pearl off, and take it up to Jefferson to sell.”
“We’ll all go out to where we stashed it,” said Otis. “As soon as everyone’s asleep, let’s take the boat and go out there.”
We ended up back on the lake at about two in the morning at that old hollowed out oak. Henry hopped out of the boat and easily found where we had tied off the handkerchief near the marshmallow plant. This time he had brought a shovel so he dug up the pail quickly. He popped off one of the end pearls from the necklace, put it back in the pail, and reburied it.
As we paddled back to the camp, I could see a gray fog forming out near Swanson’s Landing where we had found the woman and her pearls.
A few days later on his day off Henry made his way to the jeweler in Jefferson. I was working overtime when he returned, so he gave my share of the money to Otis. It was $20 split three ways now; $6.66 each. That was the Devil’s number. I told Otis just to keep mine, joking I was gonna’ owe him money somewhere down the line anyway. But the point is, I just didn’t feel right taking it.
About a week later as I was working on my rig, an explosion shook the lake that was so bad, Jimmy Swenson almost fell off the rigging he had been climbing. The well head into the lake from rig #37 which had been repaired since the fire was burning a torch in the sky. The whole rig had been blown apart, pieces floating on top the lake. It was all of our worst fears, a blowout. I found out when I made it back to shore that Henry and five other men were working on that rig when it blew. They were all dead, their pieces and parts providing food for the turtles and fishes.
That night Otis came to my tent. By this time, he was spooked too.
“Thomas, you know there’s blowouts and explosions on these rigs all the time. There’d been a fire on that rig,” he said. I think he was trying to convince himself as much as he was trying to convince me.
“I don’t want no part of it. As far as I’m concerned, them pearls can stay right where they are. It could be just a coincidence, but I ain’t tempting fate. I’m only seventeen. I have my whole life ahead of me.”
Otis contemplated this and replied, “Okay. We just let sleeping dogs lie.”
A few weeks went by and Otis and I finally felt as if the bad luck that had been haunting us since that night on the lake was passed. Frank had been taken back to Nacogdoches where he had been born to be buried. Nothing was ever found of Henry, so his family packed up from Potter’s Point and went back to Texarkana. Life went back to normal. I’d steadily been losing at poker, but I was still superstitious and I never asked Otis to spot me the $6.66 I’d told him to hold onto from Henry’s sale of the pearl.
The pearl diving went on in Caddo Lake. No one found any big pearls after that, but every once in a while, someone would pop up shouting from somewhere along the lake, a mussel in his or her hands.
August was hotter than July had been; the humidity was merciless. My shirt and pants were soaked clear through ten minutes after I put them on. It caused us to do more maintenance on the rigs because the humidity causes the metal to get a faint coating of rust. It was the middle of August, and Otis and I were working on #19, his rig, together. Mine was down for maintenance so I volunteered; some men had left after the two accidents. As a lowly floor hand who was nothing much more than an errand boy, I could move easily between gas and oil rigs. It was near the end of the day. I was sorting out tools putting them away for the next day. Otis as a derrickman was at the top of the well tipping the pipe up that pressed on the drill bit so the bit could be changed for the next day. Although Otis had done this a thousand times, he lost his grip on the rope he was using to pull up the pipe and fell off right into Nate Smith, the driller ten feet below. Nate managed to hang on, but Otis fell down twenty more feet down to the platform.
I ran over and kneeled next to him. He was still breathing, but both his legs were at odd angles and his body was laying atop his arm in an unnatural position. The rig boss yelled and men ran over. We carefully moved him into the boat that took us out to the rigs on the lake each day. Otis woke up when we moved him into the boat, screaming and moaning, and then finally passed out. The rig boss and I along with two other workers got in the boat and paddled up the lake to the Big Cypress Bayou as fast as we could. We paddled in shifts, but it still took several hours to get Otis up to Jefferson. When we got to the town proper, I jumped off the boat and ran and got the doctor. He ran into his stable, hooked up his horse, and we both jumped in the cart as he used his whip to start his horse running towards the boat.
Otis was still unconscious and had been for the whole trip. He moaned as we transferred him from the boat to the cart. We rode back with the doctor and waited in his waiting room while he treated Otis.
It was night by the time the doctor came out to talk to us.
“He’s alive,” he said. “I set both his legs and put his shoulder back in place. Luckily, there were no bones sticking through the skin, but he hit his head, so I really don’t know if he will make it or not. Go on home and check back with me in the morning.”
The rig boss sprung for a hotel room at the Jefferson Hotel. All four of us had to share one room. Before we went to sleep, we went to a bar off murder alley and got drunk. The rig boss was buying. That night none of us really slept, but we didn’t talk either.
The next morning, we went back to check on Otis. He was unconscious still, but still alive. We got in the boat and the rig boss dropped me off at Potter’s Point. I fell into a dead sleep finally, my hangover ringing in my ears.
When I woke up it was dark, and I could hear the usual crowd out by the campfire. It was too hot for a fire, but the smoke kept most of the bugs away. I crept to the edge of the lake and stole a boat. As I padded up the lake towards Swanson’s Landing, I felt a wind whip up. Streaks of lightning jetted across the sky on the Louisiana side. I held up the lantern when I got close, peering into the dark cypress groves. After what seemed forever, I finally found the hollow oak tree and I took the boat into shore. I hadn’t thought to bring a shovel, so I dug up the peaty ground with my bare hands. I uncovered the lunch pail, opened it up, took out the handkerchief and pulled out the pearls. They gleamed in the lantern light, tempting me.
I got back in the boat and kept heading up towards Swanson’s Landing. By the time I got to the place where we’d found the necklace, a large gray fog bank was forming over the lake. I tied the boat to one of the cypress knees and counted off my steps to the shore out 30 feet or so. I held up the lantern and peered back at the lake, looking for the walking sticks Frank had jammed in the mud weeks before. In a flash of lightning, I saw only one remained sticking out from the lake. The heat had evaporated the waters and it stood like a sentinel or a grave marker; it was two feet above the surface of the lake. I walked over to the stick and started walking in a straight line back and forth, first to the right, then the left. Then I walked a line in front of the stick closer to the shore. Nothing. Finally I walked a line back and forth farther out in the lake from where the stick was and finally I felt it; the woman. By this time, it was pouring down rain.
I dove and started to dig out the body again. It took me several dives to remove the body from the muck that was holding it captive. I took the pearl necklace and wrapped it around the headless corpse, fastening through a hole in her rib cage so it would not come off. I reburied her. It took me five dives to complete the task. Then I took the stick and threw it into the lake. I waded back to the boat and flopped into it exhausted. I looked up at the rain and the lightning expecting God to strike me dead right there.
It was almost dawn when I bailed out the boat with a bucket and paddled back to Potter’s Point. I felt as if a weight had lifted; the pearls were back where they belonged. But I knew in my heart even though I didn’t believe in ghosts, that she was powerful whoever she was, a voodoo queen or a vengeful ghost who didn’t want her watery grave robbed. I hoped I’d saved Otis. He’d taken money from the pearls, but he had never stolen one himself.
I drug myself out on the rig that morning. It was a beautiful day. After work, I went back to my tent and collapsed. I got out a chewed nub of a pencil and a wrinkled slip of paper and I wrote my letter of resignation. This was the last day I ever planned to spend out in the middle of Caddo Lake. I would rather dig a hardscrabble life out of the clay on my father’s small cotton farm. I knew my momma would be glad to have me back home.
I left the tent on Potter’s Point. I told the rig boss when I resigned from Gulf the next morning that anyone could have it. My meager belongings were wrapped up in my sleeping bag which I formed into a sort of pouch so I could carry over my shoulder. Then I walked the twelve miles or so home In the August dust and heat.
A week or so later, I walked to seven miles or so to Jefferson from my house to check on Otis. He was awake in a room in the doctor’s house, in good spirits. The doctor said he thought Otis would be just fine. I told Otis I quit; by this time Otis had lost his job and knew he’d never be able to go back to the rigs. His legs were never going to be quite right. The doctor had written to his brother and he planned to go live with him and his sister-in-law in Shreveport as soon as he healed enough.
I left Otis around three in the afternoon and as I started to walk back towards the Big Cypress Bayou, I heard the fire bell ringing. I looked back and I saw the fire company’s horse and wagon peel out of the stables on the south edge of town where I was and streak back uptown. Something made me turn back and follow it.
I walked back into the main part of town. The fire wagon had stopped on Polk Street, right in front of the jewelers. The place was a conflagration; the bucket brigade tried valiantly, but it was a total loss. The jeweler himself had been inside trying to gather the costliest items when the floor above the shop collapsed in on him. Luckily, the jewelers was on the corner and there was a vacant lot next to his shop so nothing else burned.
The pearls and the people who profited from them were all gone. As I walked back home, I realized my grandma and momma were right. You just don’t mess with the ghosts of Caddo Lake.
Colleen Halupa is a multi-modal writer who has published creative nonfiction, poetry and fiction in various literary magazines and anthologies. She is an AF retiree, professor and graduate of the creative writing program at the University of Denver. She likes nothing better than an old fashioned ghost story. “Caddo” is fiction, ,but it is based on the true history and legends of Caddo Lake. She recently became the web editor at Flora Fiction. This is her first submission to Flora Fiction.