Nightscapes





THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY


by

Ron Shiflet




Wade Herndon drove his beat-up Chevy pickup into the small gravel parking lot and turned off the ignition. His brown eyes focused on the faded wooden sign above the small frame bait shop. In painted white letters read the words Ed's Beer and Bait. This looked like the place he had heard about. Now, he had only to go inside and confirm the information.

Leaving his truck, he paused just long enough to look around. Near the battered screen door of the establishment was an old Pepsi Cola advertisement that brought back vivid memories. He and his father had once seen such signs on a regular basis during the fishing trips taken when he was a child. His father had long since passed away and Herndon eventually developed other interests along the path to adulthood. Upon hearing about this place from a fellow at work, he decided that the present might be a good time to renew his acquaintance with the rod and reel.

The large man walked under the overhang of the porch, gingerly pulling open the screen door. Relieved that the door remained on its hinges, he entered the dimly lit interior of the shop. His eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom as a small metal bell jangled as the screen door closed. The shop was rather grimy and cluttered, but looked no worse than many other such establishments he had seen over the years. Finding no one behind the counter, he sauntered desultorily around the shop, reading labels on canned goods that had probably been on the shelves for years. He looked at his watch, jumping slightly as the back door slammed.

A few moments passed and finally a grizzled old man with peculiar features entered from the back room. He had an affliction that caused his eyes to constantly bulge and a wattle of skin beneath his chin that would make a Thanksgiving turkey proud. The old man said, "Howdy, boy," in a raspy voice, removing his cap and daubing sweat from his brow with a dirty handkerchief.

"Morning, sir," Herndon replied. "I was beginning to think that no one was here."

"Sorry 'bout that," said the shopkeeper. "I was out back skinning a cat I got this morning."

"Skinning a cat?" Herndon asked with a rather squeamish expression on his face.

"Yeah, boy. A nice eight-pounder my nephew caught this morning down near where the river forks."

"Oh sure!" Herndon laughed, relieved to discover that his first impression was wrong.

He figured that that would explain the strong fish smell emanating from the man.

The old man frowned and then cackled, "What did you think I meant?"

"Uh, nothing sir," answered Herndon rather sheepishly. "I'm just sort of slow this morning caffeine ain't kicked in yet."

"Well," the proprietor answered, "don't have no coffee here but you might want to get you one of them Mountain Dew sody-pops. They're almost as good as coffee to get you going in the morning."

"Good idea," Herndon replied. "Please give me a carton of blood-bait too, if you will."

"Sure thing," answered the old man, fetching and then ringing up the items on an antiquated register.

* * *

Herndon and the old man talked for several minutes about a variety of topics. Ed the proprietor indicated that he was originally from New England but had eventually drifted to the Tenoka area while still a young man.

"Me and my nephew," said the old man, "are the only ones of my clan who ever settled this far south. You might say I was always one to swim against the tide."

Herndon told the man that he had no family to speak of and knew what it was like to be pretty much on one's own. Ed seemed particularly interested in Herndon's lack of family but the would-be angler chalked this up to loneliness on the part of the old codger. He supposed that the man and his nephew saw only the occasional fishing party and welcomed the opportunity to gab with strangers.

Ed expressed regret that Herndon hadn't had a chance to meet his nephew, Lewis, but speculated that there was a good chance they might cross paths later where Coleman's Creek ran into the Big Moccasin River. "And," said the old man, "I don't guess I need to tell you how that river got its name."

Herndon reassured him that he would be cautious and left the shop after first promising to stop back by when he was through for the day.

"I appreciate that, young fellow. Hope you have a chance to meet Lewis. I'm sure you'll find him more interesting than an old coot like me."

* * *

Herndon left the bait shop and returned to his truck. Taking a large gulp of Mountain Dew, he placed the plastic bottle in the cup-holder. Before starting the truck, he lifted the cardboard carton of blood-bait and looked at the container. He chuckled to himself upon discovering that The Marsh Company located in a town called Innsmouth produced the bait in New England. He found it amusing that the old fellow still maintained strong ties and loyalty to the region from which he hailed. He doubted that catfish had a preference but the shopkeeper swore that the bait would attract some real monsters.

* * *

Edward Marsh watched the young stranger leave the shop and rubbed his scaly hands in glee. The man's disappearance would probably go unnoticed and bring no unwelcome attention upon himself or his nephew. Besides, he wouldn't be the first such stranger to disappear near Tenoka over the years. The dark, pine-covered region of East Texas seemed to have a habit of swallowing the unwary. He smiled, whistling an old sea chantey that he hadn't thought of in years. Turning to one of the dusty shelves behind the counter, he procured another carton of Innsmouth Blood-Bait, deciding it was time for a snack.

* * *

Herndon drove slowly down the red, sandy road, following the directions given to him by Marsh. Sparse light shone through the towering pines blanketing the area. He guessed that the dirt road should fork before much farther and it was at this point that he was to proceed east to the Big Moccasin River. Sure enough, he soon arrived at a fork in the road and made his way carefully to the river.

The river was slow-moving and deep. Marsh told him that there were many deep drop-offs in this part of the river and that it would be a good place to start. Exercising caution, he parked the truck and stepped down to the ground. Much of the area was covered with dead limbs and pine needles and he didn't relish the thought of confronting any poisonous snakes. He eventually found a place on the bank of the river that was relatively clear of debris and brought his tackle from the truck. Baiting a hook, he cast his line into what appeared to be a promising spot in the river.

Watching warily for cottonmouths, he rested his rod and reel on a forked tree branch that he had secured into the ground. Expecting a moderate wait before achieving any success, he checked his watch. It was only six-fifteen a.m., but he figured an iced-down can of Coors would go down pretty well. He didn't think of himself as a heavy drinker and never understood why the time of day should determine when he could drink a beer. He smoked a cigarette and downed the beer. Exhaling a plume of smoke, he listened to the call of a noisy crow and decided to eat a sandwich he had packed for the trip. Checking that his line was taut, he walked to the truck to retrieve his breakfast.

* * *

Large, unblinking eyes observed Herndon from beneath the slow moving water. They watched as Herndon left the riverbank, walking up the path leading to the truck. The creature, well submerged beneath the murky water, possessed the ability to observe all that occurred above the surface of Big Moccasin River.

The creature had engaged in this type of activity before, perversely viewing it as a game. It intended to first play with its prey before eventually capturing and killing it. Its large webbed feet and hands enabled it to tread water and remain hidden several feet below the surface, yet above the slimy bottom of a deep sinkhole. A large bottom cat swam nearby, giving no indication that the watchful creature was in any way out of its element. The catfish stared stupidly at the skulking creature but soon turned its attention to the partial remains of a possum that drifted slowly along the bottom silt. The thing in the water found Herndon's fishing line without difficulty. It decided to await the man's return before beginning the game.

* * *

Herndon returned with his half-eaten sandwich, noticing that the end of his rod was bending ever so slightly. Retrieving it from between the forked branch, he gave it a quick jerk, hoping to securely set the hook. He didn't know if this was necessary, but it seemed right to him. It occurred to him that he had fond memories of childhood fishing trips, but had learned or retained little of the knowledge imparted by his father. "What the hell?" he thought. "I'm having a good time so who cares?"

His line suddenly went slack and he sighed in disappointment. Reeling in the line, he again baited the hook, telling himself that his luck would soon change. Once the hook was baited, he cast his line in the general vicinity of the first strike. Minutes passed with no results and he began to relax again. The noisy crow was still nearby and so was the Styrofoam ice-chest containing the beer. Popping the top on a second can of Coors, he took a long sip of the amber colored liquid. All seemed right with the world.

He gazed at a clump of pine needles slowly being carried down river and started as a fish broke the surface of the water with a loud splash. Checking his line for tautness, he returned to his daydreaming. In the next instant, his rod was nearly jerked into the water. Reacting quickly, he realized that he had hooked a large one. He would take his time and gradually reel in his catch. Don't want to snap the line and lose the bastard for a second time. Everything was fine when the line again went slack. "Damn," he muttered, finding it difficult to believe that he had lost another one. In frustration, he reeled in his line and prepared to try again.

* * *

The submerged creature observed Herndon's reaction from beneath the water. Amused by its own cleverness, it decided to act soon before its prey left the scene in frustration. The fisherman on the riverbank would be successful on his next attempt. The creature anticipated seeing the expression on the face of its prey once it discovered what it had caught. The silent stalker slowly fanned water with its webbed hands and feet and waited for the next cast of the line.

* * *

Herndon calmed himself, determined to keep his frustration from getting the best of him. After all, it had been years since he had fished so it was only natural that mistakes would occur. He knew that success would come only if he remained persistent and patient. Again baiting the hook, he cast his line into the same part of the river as on previous casts. Something big was down there and Herndon intended to reel it in. He stood with the rod and reel in his hands rather than resting his gear between the forked limb. He was ready to set the hook at the first sign of a strike.

* * *

The creature watched as the hook, line and sinker sank beneath the river. Swimming along the murky bottom, it eventually reached the baited hook. It worked the barbed metal hook into the tough webbing between its claw-tipped fingers, feeling no pain but only a surge of anticipation at what was about to occur. The game would soon end. With a flip of its clawed hand, it tugged on the line and allowed the prey to reel it in.

* * *

Herndon immediately felt the pressure on his line and tried to set the hook. Thumbing the release on the rod to allow some slack, he hoped to let his catch tire itself before attempting to reel it in. Taking his time, he brought the line in without trying to force the issue. "Hot damn," he cried. "I've hooked a whopper!"

The creature played its part well. It put up a good fight as it worked its way to the far bank on which Herndon stood. There was a deep drop-off near the section of the river closest to its prey. The creature swam along the bottom, obscured by the muddy water until reaching the drop-off. It prepared to launch itself to the surface and strike before its prey knew what was happening.

* * *

Feeling a sense of elation, Herndon knew that success was almost at hand. Maintaining a firm grip on his tackle, he knew he would see his catch in only a few moments. With his adrenaline pumping, he cast a quick look to the ground, reassuring himself that his net was nearby in case needed. In the excitement, he nearly knocked it into the river with his feet. Maintaining his grip on the rod and reel, he extended his foot in an effort to drag the net away from the water's edge. He had almost snagged the net with the toe of his boot when a large black water moccasin struck from within a patch of high weeds. Cursing in surprise, he dropped the rod and reel to the bank. He felt no pain but instinctively flailed his leg in a clumsy effort to dislodge the reptile. He was unbitten but the snake had managed to snag its venomous fangs in the denim pant leg covering his roughed-out boots.

The submerged creature felt the line go slack but could not ascertain the reason. It waited, trying to learn what was happening above the surface. From the sinkhole near the bank, it had a poor view of what transpired above the water. Meanwhile, Herndon, with great revulsion, grabbed the writhing cottonmouth near its tail in an effort to better secure the snake until he could pry it loose. He managed to stabilize the reptile and stiffly inched his way to the pickup where he precariously retrieved the hunting knife he kept under the passenger seat. Using the flat of the knife blade to hold the snake in place, he reached into the glove box and withdrew the .38 caliber pistol, loaded with hollow point shells. Inching toward the river, he positioned himself so that he could place the barrel of the pistol beneath the reptile's head and fire downward into the water thus avoiding the possibility of accidentally shooting anyone who might be in the surrounding woods. He realized the absurdity of his plan, but there was no way he could bring himself to grasp the moccasin behind the head and work the snake free from his jeans.

With a shaking hand and sweat-drenched face, he placed the pistol barrel against the struggling snake and pulled the trigger. At that instant, the creature in the river surfaced, breaking the water as the bullet blew the serpent's head free of Herndon's denims.

He heard the creature roar in pain as a large bullet fragment entered its left eye. Herndon, still shaken from his encounter with the cottonmouth, screamed and fell backwards onto the damp, sandy soil. The large, anthropomorphic creature pulled itself onto the bank of the river with great effort. It walked erect like a man but had scales like a fish. Its wide, webbed claws were capable of inflicting severe damage to man or beast. The creature moved one webbed hand from its face, revealing a thick black ichor flowing from the damaged eye. The fish-man was in obvious pain and disoriented from the unexpected wound. Stunned and confused, it wasn't accustomed to being on the receiving end of a lightning swift attack.

The wounded creature steadied itself, surveying the area with its one good eye. In seconds, it spied Herndon on the ground, struggling to regain his footing. The enraged creature lumbered toward the man, intent on finishing the game it had started. Herndon lunged for the gun he had dropped in his initial panic, narrowly avoiding the deadly claws that raked deep furrows into the ground he had just vacated. Grabbing the .38, he rolled toward the truck, trying to position it between himself and the pursuing creature.

"Son of a bitch!" he yelled to no one in particular.

He laughed hysterically. I'm being pursued by the Creature From the Black Lagoon. The beast was fast approaching, ruling out the possibility of getting into the truck and driving to safety. Herndon quickly checked the .38 to insure that no mud or dirt had clogged the barrel during his initial fall. His attacker was within about eight feet of the truck when Herndon got off a shot that went wide of his adversary's head. The bullet ripped through one of the monster's webbed hands, causing it to emit a croaking roar of pain and rage. It lunged toward the truck, slashing wildly with its uninjured claw. Four deep furrows now appeared in the hood of the battered Chevy.

Herndon prepared to flee but first fired a second shot at his attacker. The bullet struck the creature in the mid-section, seeming to slow it down. More black ichor oozed from the wound and he felt increasingly confident of surviving his incredible encounter. The wounded creature struggled to reach him, but the three wounds it had sustained were taking a severe toll on its strength. Herndon sensed that he was going to prevail and calmed himself and aimed more carefully. His next shot was true, sending a bullet crashing into the creature's remaining good eye. The beast pitched forward onto the damp ground. It emitted a few croaking gasps and grew silent.

Walking cautiously toward his apparently dead attacker, Herndon shook his head in disbelief. Shaken by the encounter, he felt a sense of elation at emerging victorious from the confrontation. He stared at the still creature, amazed to discover that there was no exit wound from where the beast had taken a bullet through the eye. Near the back of the creature's head was a spot that bulged outward but no exit wound. Poking at the prone creature with a heavy stick, he was surprised at the toughness of the thing's hide. He decided that he was lucky to have hit the creature in places where it was most vulnerable, such as the eyes and one small, lightly scaled area on the creature's torso.

He grabbed another beer from the ice-chest and lit a cigarette. The day's fishing had come to an end.

* * *

Edward Marsh napped in the back room of his shop, confident that the metal bell would alert him to any potential customers. He had been awakened earlier by the sound of gunshots but thought little of it at the time. Gunfire wasn't particularly rare in the woods near Tenoka. "Probably some kid shooting at pop bottles or varmints," mumbled the old man.

He carelessly wiped the wooden counter and turned on an old transistor radio in hopes of catching part of the Rangers vs. Red Sox game. He was a Bosox fan, never missing a game if he could help it. Attempting to fine-tune the receiver, he heard the first of a continuing series of horn blasts. Marsh couldn't tell from which direction the sounds came, but knew they were close.

"Damn fool kids," Marsh spat, in disgust.

Seconds passed and he realized that the noise was coming from the dirt road leading to the river. Shuffling to the front door, he was surprised to learn that the noise was made by the young fellow who had been in earlier.

Herndon sped toward the bait shop, kicking up gravel as he skidded into the parking lot. Turning off the truck's ignition, he bolted from the vehicle. His clothes and hair were disheveled and there were a few wet blotches of some dark substance on his shirt and jeans.

"Hot damn, you were right!" he yelled, striding toward the front door of the bait shop. "I did catch a monster with that bait!"

Marsh looked puzzled, just the slightest bit of concern crossing his face.

"Settle down there, feller" he croaked. "What are you going on about?"

Herndon disregarded the old man's question and began to ramble.

"Ice," he spluttered, "I want to buy all the ice you've got! Gotta keep it cold until I can get it to the college."

"College!" shouted the old man in frustration. "Why you want to haul a catfish to the college? Let me take a look at your catch. Them college boys ain't gonna be interested in seeing no catfish!"

"It's not a catfish, Mr. Marsh," said Herndon excitedly. "I don't know what it is some kind of monster like something out of a movie."

Marsh began to have a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"Come here and take a look," Herndon said. "Before I ice it down."

Marsh walked unsteadily to Herndon's truck, steeling himself to look. Herndon continued to babble, but Marsh was beyond hearing his words as he gazed in horror and disbelief at the malodorous corpse of his nephew, Lewis Marsh!


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© 2006 Edward P. Berglund
"The One That Got Away": © 2001, 2006 Ron Shiflet. All rights reserved. This is reprinted from Dark Legacy # 9.
Graphics © 1998-2006 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: October 28, 2006