A Dead Beech Tree Bridge

A dead beech log across Crooked Bayou

This companion passage to Joe’s visit to the baygall occurs over a year later in our story. It’s near the end of The Wayfaring Stranger. It’s my favorite passage and when I read the end of it to groups, their reactions are always a mixture of nods, smiles, and tears.

Enjoy it! -C.I.

Chapter 41

January was normally the coldest month of the year in Louisiana, but it can also be filled with pleasant days.. A stretch of nice weather like that, about a month after the ice storm, is what led to the disappearance of Uncle Arch Weeks..

Unk and Joe were working with the sheep on this fine, clear morning when they heard someone blowing repeatedly on a cow horn. They stopped to listen and discuss whether it was just a neighbor calling his dogs or the signal of something being wrong. When it continued unabated, they both stopped and hurriedly started toward the sound of the horn.

The sounds led them straight toward Uncle Arch and Aunt Mollie’s place. As they neared the cabin, there were already two or three other men gathered in a clump by the front porch. Aunt Mollie sat on the porch with two other neighbor women. As they approached, Joe heard the man holding a big cow horn say, “If he’s been missing since last evening, I fear for him.”

Another man answered, “Uncle Arch knows these woods as well as anyone. I can’t believe he got lost on land he’s tromped for all his life.”

“You’re right. It makes me think he might have got hurt or something worse. The bottom line is we’ve got to git to looking fer him.”
The men, now including Unk and Joe, went to the porch and the horn blower asked her, “Aunt Mollie, did he give you any idea where he might be a-going?”

She was rocking her legs nervously as she answered, “No, he just said it was too good a day not to go out and kill a few squirrels for a gumbo. Usually when he wanted to shoot squirrels, he’d go downstream along the creek.”

“He didn’t go no other places some of the time, did he?”
“Not that I know of, Child.”

Seeming to scold herself she muttered, “I tried to git him not to go, but no—he just had to make another hunt. He was too old and stooped to be out in the woods like that. When he didn’t come home at dark, I got real worried, but had no way to contact anyone.”

She put her head in her hands and continuing muttering inaudibly. One of the women sitting by her stroked her hair and said, “Aunt Mollie, don’t you worry none! He’s all right—and he was gonna go hunting whether you let him go or not.”

The men quickly gathered and each agreed to search a particular area. Instructions were given as to how to make contact when he was found. The men with guns were told to shoot three times in succession. The others with cow horns were told to blow them in sets of three. Joe and Unk, who had neither, were told to just start hollering and quickly work their way back to the house.
One fellow asked, “Do you reckon he could have crossed the creek?” Everyone looked around and finally a man replied, “No, I don’t believe he would. I can’t see him getting out on a log or wading.”

Everyone headed out quickly in his assigned direction. Joe and Unk trotted toward the creek and began a step-by-step process of trying to cover all of the hardwoods area on the near bank. They got about forty yards apart and began walking parallel to the creek.
Unk would holler about every ten steps, “Uncle Arch. Where ye at? Come on out, Uncle Arch. Aunt Mollie’s got breakfast ready.”

As they worked their way along the small draws among the beech and hickory groves, they watched carefully for any signs of footprints, but found none. All this time, Unk kept up his calling, “Uncle Archie Weeks. Where ‘bout are ye? Come on out, Uncle Arch. Hide and seek’s over. It’s time to come home.”

Joe kept thinking about an old man this age being stranded in the woods overnight. It’d not been too cold last night, but there had been a light frost, which meant it had gotten below forty degrees. Not a good night for a fellow to be lost in the woods.

After Unk and Joe had been searching for thirty minutes and had gone what he estimated was nearly a mile, Joe walked over to Unk. “I just don’t believe he went this far, do you?”
“It would be a fer piece for an old crippled man to stumble along. Anyway, there’s plenty of squirrel places way back there.”

Joe asked, “Unk, you don’t think he wandered up into the pines do you?”
“I wouldn’t think so. Don’t nobody hunt squirrels in the pine stands. The fox squirrels will cut pine cones in the mixed stands of oak and pine, but they don’t like to leave the acorns and beech mast. No one knew that better than Uncle Arch.”

“Could he have crossed the creek?”
“I don’t think he would have—or could have. I can’t see him wading the creek at any ford and that flat log crossing ain’t been used by Uncle Arch in years.”

“Could there—would there—have been any reason for him to cross the creek?”
Unk thought for a minute. ”I don’t see why. You can git squirrels easier on this side.”
They discussed their options and decided to retrace their steps, moving up from the creek. Thy walked more quickly in their return due to their belief that the lost hunter wasn’t in this area.
Joe asked, “Hey Unk, what is across the creek where the flat-log crossing is?”

“Nothin’ but more woods like this—then there is a bay gall with a slough in it.”
Joe stopped in his tracks; he knew exactly the area Unk had just described. It was the spot where he’d once spent the night soon after entering this part of No Man’s Land. It was the first time he’d ever seen wood ducks and the place had made a lasting impression on him.
“Unk, you just keep working your way along the creek until you get back near the cabin. I’m going across the creek just to have a look around.”

“I believe you’re jes’ wasting your time.”
“Well, so be it, but I just feel I need to take a look.”

Cherry Winche Creek near its confluence with the Calcasieu

Joe quickly came to the crossing over Cherry Winche. It was actually an old hickory that had fallen years ago during some past high water. Someone had notched the top of the log with an ax. This made for a flatter and rougher walking

The log had a good bit of age on it—covered with slick green moss and showed signs of rotting, so Joe walked carefully onto it. He looked below in the water for any sign of where a person might have fallen. It was a good twenty feet down to the water—not a good distance to fall. He examined closely the top of the log for any signs that someone had recently crossed and found none. Joe considered stopping, turning around, and returning. He just couldn’t see a person Uncle Arch’s age and condition getting on this log—.

It was where the log ended that he saw it—one human footprint on the muddy bank. There was nothing else. Damp leaves covered the rest of the trail and there was no sign where, or if, the footprint had continued. If Uncle Arch had crossed here, Joe now had an idea where he had been headed.

He thought about hollering for the other men, but didn’t. He’d wait and see first.
He remembered that the slough began where the swamp changed from hardwood to surrounding pines. It was a bay gall—an wet wooded area surrounded by dry land.
On one of his visits with Arch and Mollie, he had asked Uncle Arch about the wood duck slough. The old man’s eyes lit up, and Joe remembered well Arch’s ensuing story: “Boy, that’s the first place I ever shot a wood duck. I was probably ten or so. I crawled up on the slough and shot me a pretty wood duck drake. I brought it home and my momma made me clean it, and we had the best duck gumbo I’ve ever tasted to this day.”

Thinking back on the light in Uncle Arch’s face when he’d told this story, Joe thought he knew at least where the old Ten Miler was headed. He thought about hollering for him, but decided if he was there, he’d find him soon enough.

He saw the oak trees and then the dark water of the slough. Approaching the east side of the slough, Joe saw what he was looking for—the old man was sitting peacefully against a tree right by the water. He looked so peaceful there and seemed to be asleep.

But when Joe walked up to him, he realized he wasn’t asleep. Joe Moore had seen enough dead people to recognize one when he saw one now—Uncle Arch was dead. He knelt down by him and placed his hand on his shoulder. The stiff body—its coldness—the color of his skin—were all mute testimony that he’d been dead a while, probably since the evening before.

There were several things that instantly caught Joe’s attention: First of all was how Uncle Arch had a wood duck drake in his right hand. Even in death, he held the bird firmly by the neck. Two fox squirrels lay beside the shotgun that leaned against the tree. The old man’s boots were wet as well as his pants up to just above the knees.

The second thing Joe noticed—the one it would stay in his mind—was the look on Uncle Arch’s face. There was a slight smile, frozen there by death. His eyes were closed and a deep look of peace was on his grizzled face.

He couldn’t take his eyes off the man’s face. Joe thought back to all of the death he had seen during the famine. The visage of a person who had starved to death very seldom looked peaceful. It was a slow, hopeless, and undignified way to die.

But here was something totally different. Looking around, Joe could nearly reassemble the last minutes of Uncle Arch’s life: slipping up on the slough and shooting that drake wood duck—just like he’d done as a boy. Then slowly wading out into the shallow slough to retrieve his kill; coming back out of the water with the duck; going over to the tree where he’d leaned the shotgun, thinking about how good eating this would be in Mollie’s gumbo.

Probably he’d been winded from the excitement of the hunt, so he’d sat down against the tree to catch his breath—and then he’d just went to sleep.

Joe shook his head: There were lots of worse ways to go than how Uncle Arch Weeks had left this earth, holding a wood duck firmly in his right hand, sitting against a beech tree.

He recalled an old Irish saying often overheard at the wakes of those who’d lived a long life with much of their last years filled with sickness and agony: “He lived a lot longer than he should have had to.” He smiled wanly as the looked at the peaceful face of Uncle Arch. He had lived just right. He’d done what every rural man—whether in Ireland or America wanted to do—he’d died with his boots on.

Joe thought about picking him up to carry him back across the creek, then he thought better of it. He’d learned enough about the Ten Mile men to know they would want to see this sight for themselves.

So leaving the body right where it was, Joe headed back to the creek where he began hollering. Within fifteen minutes, four of the men, including Unk, came running.
“I found him. He’s dead over by that slough.”

They peppered him with questions, for which he simply answered, “You need to see it for yourself.”

The five of them got to the slough and surrounded Uncle Arch’s body. No one said a word for nearly a minute. Then one exclaimed, “Now if I could choose how to go, that’s how’d it be, fellows. Just like that.”

They all nodded in agreement. Finally, Unk commented, “It looks like he jes’ nodded off asleep and woke up with Jesus.”
Joe added, “He once told me this is where he killed his first wood duck.”
One of the men added, “Yep, and it’s whar he killed his last one, too.”

Author’s note: Most fiction is lifted from real events. One of my heroes, Mr. Jay Miller made a deer hunt in November 2000. He took his daughter Juanita to a deer stand in Miller Pasture, then placed his pastor, Glen Ducharme, on another stand.

As Mr. Jay, who was in his 80’s, hurried in the dark to his deer stand, he fell dead in a fire lane.

As family and neighbors later waited for the ambulance to arrive, one of the older men commented, “Fellows, that’s just how I’d like to go. On my way to my deer stand, .30-.30 rifle under my arm.”

It’s the goal of every country man to die “with his boots on.” This is what Jay Miller did as well as fictional Uncle Arch in The Wayfaring Stranger.

Jay Miller was a special friend. He once told me of a December visit to The Old House where my great grandparents lived. As they sat on the porch drinking coffee, the radio had a news flash telling of an attack by the Japanese on a place called Pearl Harbor.

It was Sunday, December 7, 1941.

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