By Dean King
Ned parked his rattle-trap pickup at the end of the guardrail, making sure to pull over as far as possible onto the shoulder of the road. The county sheriffs wouldn’t hassle him for leaving his truck parked near the bridge, especially on such a quiet and little used back road, but if some half-in-the-bag driver on his way home from a night of drinking down at Tug’s bar plowed into to it, he’d be on the receiving end of a hefty citation.
He dropped the tailgate and pulled his fishing gear from the truck’s bed. At seventy-six years of age he didn’t have it in him to make two exhausting trips down to the shoreline, so he brought with him only what he could carry in a single trip. It took some careful arranging and a slow gait, but he managed to lug three fishing poles, a tackle box, a fully loaded cooler, a landing net, and gas lantern the quarter of a mile to thebridge, where a footpath led down the steep road grade to the water below.
Ned set everything down and waited for the hammering in his chest and the fatigue in his arms to subside before tackling the trail. He leaned on the barrier rail of the bridge and looked out over the backwater. From his high vantage point, he could see miles of Mississippi River bottom between the Wisconsin and Iowa shorelines. Thousands of acres of impenetrable alder, birch, and willow thickets, pocked by innumerablepools, sloughs, inlets, and tributaries formed a tapestry of forest, marsh, and river as wild as any Amazon wilderness.
Oddly, no fishing boats were working the secluded backwaters; nobody was trolling for walleye or anchored and casting for bass. Ned smiled, happy that he’d have the place to himself, but then a finger of apprehension traced an icy line down his spine as he considered just how isolated he would be below the bridge. He had told nobody that he was heading down there tonight.
He thought about that for a minute. Who would he tell? Who would care? He had no wife and no living relatives and his only acquaintances were a bunch of yahoos down at Tug’s Bar who took sadistic pleasure in mocking him, calling him a liar when he chimed in with a fish story of his own. After all, he’d caught his share of trophies over the years, and he did it without some fancy, high-powered boat with electronic fish finders and live-wells. He did it the old-fashioned way; he did it by humping his gear out to where the fish hide and sitting on his lines through good weather, and foul.
Not quite sufficiently rested, but anxious to get set up before full-dark, Ned took up his gear and slipped past the guardrail. To hell with the isolation and the exhausting hike down to the water; he meant to show everyone down at Tug’s what he was madeof. He intended to shut their mouths for good when he brought in a real trophy, and there were some monster cats in the murky waters down there below the bridge.
The trail down-slope was treacherously steep and crisscrossed with a lattice of exposed tree roots and loose stone. One careless step and he’d be at the bottom of the road grade, either dead or wishing he was. By the time anyone decided to check into why his old truck had been left sitting at the end of the guardrail, he’d be just so much coyote chow.
Slow and easy wins the day, Neddy-boy, he reminded himself as he cautiously made his way down to the backwater.
The long days of summer were gone, having been replaced by unyielding early darkness. By the time Ned pushed through a thick copse of birch and made his way to the water’s edge, the sun had dropped behind the bridge abutment casting the shoreline in a premature gloom. He looked up at the half-mile long truss bridge backlit by the setting sun and figured he had about fifteen minutes before the sun settled fully below the southwestern horizon, taking with it the last remnants of daylight.
Ned set everything down and knelt on the cold sand and placed a steadying hand on top of his lantern. He pumped the charging plunger repeatedly, pressurizing the old Colman with white gas. When hecould pump no more, he locked down the plunger with a twist and popped a wooden match into life on a chunk of limestone. He touched it to the lantern’s mantles and adjusted the flow of fuel until they glowed like twin miniature suns.
He got stiffly to his feet and hung the softly hissing lantern on the limb of a birch a few feet back from the water’s edge where it would cast the most light on the shoreline. With that task done, he twisted the cap off the neck of an Old Style and sipped it in the dying light of the clear October evening.
When the beer was empty, Ned tossed the bottle onto the sand and used the remaining few minutes of weak daylight to search the underbrush for three sturdy cast-off tree limbs. He took them back to the circle of lantern light and used his jackknife to whittle them into forked sticks about three feet long, which he pushed into the sand at intervals a few feet back from the waterline.
That done, he rigged each of his three fishing poles with heavy slip sinkers and large treble hooks, then molded a ball of foul-smelling catfish bait around each of the hooks. By the time he finished, his untrimmed fingernails were caked with the putrid dough. He lifted them to his nose, winced, and wiped them on his baggy trousers. With his lines rigged and ready to go, he rested them in the makeshift pole holders and popped the top on his second beer while peering into the near total darkness that had over-spread the backwater.
Ned had been fishing the Mississippi River for nearly fifty years and had hauled in some big fish from haunts as far north as De Soto on the Wisconsin side of the river, but the secluded stretch of shoreline below the Canton Road Bridge near Prairie Du Chien had always been his favorite fishing hole. Massive catfish as big as full-grown men prowled the murky channels that cut through the maze of wooded islands scattered for miles in either direction along both sides of the bridge. The dark recesses of undercut river banks and silt tunnels beneath masses of overhanging tree roots were perfect hunting grounds for the granddaddies of all cats—the flatheads. These behemoths lived out their decades-long lives growing to well over one hundred and twenty pounds, and though he had never landed a really big one, perhaps tonight one of the cussed old lunkers would happen upon his stink-bait and take a nibble. After all his years of humping his gear up and down treacherous trails to isolated places no other fisherman would dare to go on foot, he was due. Tonight, just felt lucky.
Ned frowned as he looked out at the darkening expanse of water. He had been the butt of some damned cruel jokes down at Tug’s this afternoon when he got to talking about some of the big ones he had caught over the years. Sure, he exaggerated some, but only a little. Everyone did. That’s why they call them “fish stories.”
But damn it all, he had caught his share of big cats over the years; he just didn’t have pictures to prove it. He didn’t carry a camera or one of those expensive, new-fangled cell phones that can take photos. He had tried to make them understand that he was after a record breaker, a really big one, and since the younger catfish taste best, that’s what he took home. The rest he put back in the water to grow some more. “Let ‘em live to fight another day,” was his credo. He’d eventually catch a record-breaker, one of the brutes, and by golly, that one he would keep. He’d have it down to the taxidermy shop before it stopped flopping, and then he’d take the mount right into Tug’s and shut their mouths for good. Tug may even want to hang it above the bar for a while with the big walleye and sturgeon mounts he had in there.
Ned smiled at the thought, but then, like the last light of day, the smile faded. They didn’t have to call him a liar and say he was making up stories and tell him it was “just the beer talking.” Even if he was stretching the truth a bit, it’s not like he was the first one to ever tell a tall tale down at Tug’s. The bull in there flowed faster than the tap beers.
Somewhere beyond the light of his lantern a fish broke water and splashed back down. Ned pulled a dirty handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped at his mouth. It’s the river, he thought, returning the rag to his pocket. The river makes you tell stories because it keeps secrets, and it makes you imagine what it’s hidin’ down there in the murk. It keeps secrets.
The thought occurred to him again, and a little shiver ran up his spine.
It makes you tell stories.
Ned hawked and spat in the sand and thought of some of the wild tales he had heard over the years; stories of strange lights under the water, and glowing haze drifting over the marshes. How many times had he sat on his stool down at Tug’s listening to someone tell how they were night-camping on some sandbar or another when something humped up out of the water and scared them senseless?
“I kid you not. We were sitting ‘round the fire havin’ a few beers when we heard a god-awful grunt. We looked up, and we saw this big thing standing in the shallows. I ain’t never seen anything like it!”
There were so many weird tales like that he couldn’t begin to keep track of them, and no two were alike:
“It was big and blackish-green . . .”
“It was all hunched over and looked dark and slimy . . .”
“It was as big as a pickup truck . . .”
“It just slipped under the water and disappeared . . .”
“It . . . It . . .IT!”
If he had heard one crazy yarn he had heard a thousand, and they were all more unbelievable than any fish story he had ever told, but nobody had ever taken a razzing like he had taken today. And it wasn’t good natured either; it was just plain mean-spirited.
Ned shook off his thoughts. It was time to get fishing. He double checked the prop sticks, especially the one that would be holding his new heavy-duty pole, a Deep Water Tamer rated for fish over two hundred pounds. He was extra careful to be sure that prop stick was pushed deep into the sandy soil and closest to him. He’d spent half of this month’s social security check on that beauty, and he wasn’t going to take a chance on losing her into the water.
Ned pumped up the Colman to coax more light from its mantles, and then cast each of his lines into the dark water, hearing a satisfying plop as the heavy sinkers splashed down. He propped the poles in the forked sticks and alligator-clipped a small bell to the tip of each pole. His fading eyesight made it nearly impossible to watch the tips of his poles for strikes, even with the light coming from the lantern, but when the moment came; he’d be able to hear a strike.
Ned eased himself onto the sand, buttoned his threadbare, red-flannel jacket against the chilly night air, and leaned back against a downfall. Settled in for the long night, he twisted the top off of another beer and drank deeply past the stub of an old cigar he kept perpetually clamped in one corner of his mouth. It spilled down his chin soaking into the scrim of gray stubble covering his face and neck like silvered cactus needles. He used his sleeve to wipe it away and stared with watery, red-rimmed eyes across the dark and shifting river.
The early October sky was moon-less and clear. Ned shifted his gaze to take in the spiral arm of the Milky Way with its innumerable stars arching across the nighttime sky. He spotted a pinprick of light hurrying toward the east and followed the track of the satellite until it faded from view.
The cold, damp air smelled of river water and the musky scent of autumn leaves. Now and then Ned heard fish breaking the surface and splashing back into the river. Around one in the morning, he amused himself by watching a young raccoon hunting for clams along the shoreline. It fished about in the shallow water for a time, its busy hands probing the bottom like a baker kneading dough, and then it moved down river beyond the reach of the lantern’s glow.
Cars, which had occasionally rumbled across the bridge with their headlights flickering hypnotically between evenly spaced rail posts, became fewer in number as the hour grew later. Once the last bar in town closed for the night, the bridge became as silent and dark as the river it spanned. The soft hiss of the lantern, the distant call of a late-season whippoorwill, and the smooth burble of eddying water had an almost narcotic effect on Ned, and he struggled to keep his heavy-lidded eyes open.
“What?” Ned startled awake. His jacket and trousers were damp with dew. Shivering, he sat up, disoriented and checked the time. It was midnight.
He turned his head in the direction of his poles and was barely able to make them out. The glow of the lantern had dwindled under low fuel pressure, and Ned strained to catch a glimpse of the bell’s silvery surface.
A bite! It was the one nearest to him; the Deep Water Tamer. A violent jerk on the line caused the tip of the rod to dip severely and snap back sending the bell he had clipped to its tip flying into the underbrush behind him. His old bones protested as Ned got to his feet. The pole jerked again and this time the forked stick it rested in tilted harshly toward the water.
“Good Gawd!” Ned moaned, and he lunged for the pole, grimacing at the pain in his back. He managed a lucky grab at the handle and set his weight against the pull on the line barely preventing it from being jerked into the water. To his astonishment, his other two poles began thrashing, the piercing ring of their bells was glassy and sharp on the cold night air. In the dim light of his failing lantern, Ned could barely make out the little bell slashing violently up and down, throwing off soft glints of lantern light as they swung on their hinged clips. It was unheard of; three strikes at the same time? How could it be?
A log! Maybe a log is drifting by, and it’s tangled my lines, Ned thought and then watched in stunned amazement as his other two poles, including a fine Abu Garcia he had owned for years, were yanked from their forked rests and into the black water.
“My sweet Mary,” Ned said, struggling to maintain a grip on his remaining pole. The pain in his back was like a hot knife blade. He dug his heels into the soft sand and leaned back to counter the tremendous pull on his line. The sheer might of whatever was on the other end was beyond anything he had ever experienced in all his years of fishing the big river. He made a feeble attempt at reeling but quickly shifted his hand back to the pole’s handle. There was nothing he could do but hang on and listen to line strip out of the drag. He tightened his two-handed grip and between gritted teeth muttered, “They’re never going to believe this one down at Tug’s.”
Ned strained to hang on while the bail on the reel whined like an angry insect. Yard after yard of one-hundred pound-test monofilament peeled off into the water like it was attached to a submarine. Seconds later, having reached its end, the line snapped with an audible crack, and Ned suddenly found himself overbalanced and reeling backward, his thin arms pinwheeling.
The heel of his left foot came up against a solid piece of driftwood, and he went down on his back in the sand. As he fell, his fishing pole, still gripped tightly in his left hand, struck the lantern. It fell to the ground and shattered. What little light it had been providing was suddenly gone, thrusting the shoreline into total darkness.
Ned lay sprawled on the damp ground, stunned and confused, his heart beating in his ears. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths to get himself under control. After a few moments, he opened them and looked at the glittering tapestry of the nighttime sky. With no bridge traffic and no lantern light, the stars looked as if they were suspended mere inches above him.
He closed his eyes again and sighed as he realized his predicament. It had been sufficiently light when he had negotiated the steep trail down from the bridge. His plan had been to fish until dawn when he would climb the path back up to the road and lug everything back to his truck. Now, with two of his poles at the bottom of the Mississippi River and the third entirely stripped of line, he was done fishing for the night. If he couldn’t fish, there was no reason to stay, but with his lantern smashed and no flashlight in his tackle box, there was no way to light the trail up the steep slope. He knew it well enough, but it was steep and strewn with loose rocks, roots, and potholes. One bad step and his old leg bones would snap, and then it wouldn’t matter if it were night or day; he’d be down here until somebody happened upon him. No matter how you cut it, he was in for a long, chilly, and uneventful rest of the night.
Ned propped himself up on his elbows as he prepared to get to his feet. He knew he should get a fire going and try to stay warm; the light would be welcome too. Just then he heard something peculiar. He cocked his head and listened carefully. He thought he recognized the sound. A large school of channel cats—maybe twenty or thirty fish, they sometimes schooled that big—had moved in close to shore and were rolling over in the shallows stirring up the muck to uncover something edible.
“Damn it all to hell and back!” Ned shouted and slapped the sand next to his thigh. “You would show up now; you cussed old flat-headed sons-of-a-whore!”
The sand was damp and cold beneath his thighs as he sat listening to the sound of catfish rolling in the shallows. Ned shook his head dejectedly, barely able to fathom his lousy luck. “Son of a bit—” he cut himself off in mid-curse when the sound changed.
It no longer sounded like catfish feeding in the shallows, but water, a lot of water, a torrent or water splashing into the river as if falling from the sky. Ned glanced up at bright stars shimmering in the crisp night air, then over at the bridge one hundred yards or more downriver. There was nowhere for the water to fall from, yet the sound continued for several seconds before subsiding to a trickle. “What in the hell is that?” Ned whispered and felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand erect.
He started to get to his feet then stiffened. Something was coming towards him from his right, and it wasn’t worried about stealth as it moved along the shoreline snapping bushes and breaking limbs. Ned could feel the impact of its steps like minor seismic tremors vibrating through his thighs and palms. He strained to see through the darkness, but without his lantern, the only light was starlight, and it was insufficient to illuminate whatever it was that was coming at him along the water’s edge.
WHAT IS IT? His mind screamed as alarm flamed in his chest like a wildfire in a pine forest.
“I was driving on the highway north of town, and IT came lurking out of the woods—”
“I was out doing a little coon hunting down by the river, and I saw IT moving through the underbrush, and it was some-awful, I can tell you—”
“. . . I had just cut my motor and was ready to drop anchor when IT—”
“. . . had been trolling for walleye in the main channel and IT—”
“. . . then my dog got to barking, and IT—”
Over the years, “IT” had been spotted more times than Ned could remember, creaking and shambling out of the depths like some creature in a Friday night horror film. Some of the stories had been damned spooky, too; spooky enough to get him looking back over his shoulder as he walked home after Tug’s closed for the night, but he’d always thought the crackpots who told them had just tipped one too many beers for their own good. But now he knew it wasn’t the beer talking. The stories were true, and he was about to face his very own IT! An actual, in your face, in your eye, kiss the girls and make them cry, GEN-U-INE IT! And sweet Jesus, how he hoped he would live to tell this one! He’d head on down to Tug’s, sit on his regular stool, and tell his story to anyone who would listen over a beer or three, or ten, and he wouldn’t care if nobody believed him. He wouldn’t care if they thought he was just some beered-up old fool hallucinating from the DT’s. He just wanted to be alive to tell it!
Gotta get moving, Neddy-boy! IT’s coming! The stories were true! THE DAMNED STORIES WERE TRUE!
Though he couldn’t see it, Ned could sense that whatever was stalking toward him was of a ponderous size. Its thudding steps were unwieldy and cumbersomeas if the thing was not entirely at home on dry-ground. Still, in mere moments, it closed the gap between where it had come out of the water and where he sat on the cold, packed sand. Ned tried to move, but his muscles felt as stiff as concrete.
Get up, damn you. GET UP! Ned’s terrorized mind shouted at him, but all he could manage was to flop onto his back and stare wide-eyed into the night sky. Ned closed his eyes. It was the best he could do. If he couldn’t move, perhaps he could go unnoticed. It worked when he was a child, huddling in his bed, terrorized by the things that rose from the shadows after the lights had gone out and everyone was asleep.
If you can’t see IT, IT can’t see you. If you can’t see IT, IT can’t see you. If you can’t see IT—
His nostrils filled with a musky scent like the odor of freshly harvested pond weed skimmed from the water when the weed cutters cleaned around the boat landings up and down the river. It was a damp, cloying odor that made him want to hold his breath.
Water dripped onto his chest, and Ned opened his eyes. The stars began to disappear. It was as if some unseen hand was cranking out a great invisible awning, blotting them out as it unrolled across the heavens.
A gargling, strangled hiss came from directly above him, and Ned’s bladder released at the sound. There was no time to scream, and no time to react. It struck with lightning speed clamping down on his right shin and jerking him up, lifting him until only his back and the back of his head remained in the wet sand. Searing pain flared in his leg as his shinbone shattered in its vise-like grip.
It quickly released its grip on Ned’s shin, and he fell back to the sand, but lightning-quick, it struck again. This time Ned felt the large bone in his thigh break. His agonized scream echoed across the river startling roosting birds into blind flight and he was jerked forward as the clamp on his thigh tightened.
Mercifully, terror and adrenaline quickly numbed his pain and Ned began kicking wildly with his free leg and groping about for something he could use as a weapon. His hand fell upon the handle of his Deep Water Tamer. He gripped the sturdy graphite pole tightly and swung it in wide arcs, slashing blindly at his attacker. It whisked through the air smacking something hard and unyielding with the sound of a rifle shot. Ned brought the pole down, again and again, putting all his strength into his swings, but his efforts were useless. The grip on his thigh tightened even more, and he felt the sand sliding under his back.
Ned released his grip on the fishing pole and began fumbling about for a handhold on something, anything he could to cling to and resist being dragged toward the river, but all he came up with were fistfuls of cold, wet sand. His jacket and shirt pulled up, and rocks and broken limbs gouged his flesh. He clenched his teeth and moaned, “Oh, dear God,” as he felt his dangling left leg submerge, and then felt water up to his waist. He was going into the river, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
When water washed over his chest and neck Ned instinctively gasped, filling his lungs with air. Downriver, a car was crossing the bridge, its headlights flickering between rail posts, its tires rhythmically slapping the expansion joints. Ned watched its headlights blur as his head submerged, then everything was black again, the sound of moving water muffled and hollow in his ears.
Ned felt his back sliding over something jagged as he was dragged into deeper water by a creature he couldn’t even imagine, something terrible and imponderable, something he wasn’t meant to survive. He struggled to hold his breath. His lungs burned with the effort. Water flooded into his nose and filled his sinuses. Sand and organic matter stung his eyes, and though he could see nothing, he felt the sensation of descending. A moment later he felt the soft silt of the river bottom and the pressure of current against his body.
The grip on his thigh lessened for just an instant then reasserted itself farther up on his hip. The fresh pain caused him to gasp, and silty water rushed down his throat. It was gritty and tasted of iron. Ned used the air in his lungs to expel the water from his throat, and then tried with all his might to avoid gasping in more river water, but his empty lungs soon demanded what his mind was refusing to give. Ned shook his head violently and brought his hands up to pinch his lips shut, but his empty lungs would not be denied. Convulsively, Ned gasped and filled them with the tannic water of the mighty Mississippi River.
I’ll never get to tell this story down at Tug’s, he thought. Now I’m just one of the river’s secrets.
Tommy Newkirk couldn’t believe his luck. It was a beautiful fishing pole. He found it laying in the sand near a fairly well-stocked tackle box about a hundred yards from the bridge. He looked it over. It was perfect for the big cats. He’d have to load her with monofilament—for some reason the reel’s spool was empty—but he’d load her up and give her a try; maybe he’d come tonight and bring a lantern.
About the Author:
Dean King Was born in Chicago but moved to Wisconsin when he was just seven years old. He grew up in small towns enjoying an adventurous childhood with a close-knit group of friends. He studied horticulture in Madison, and for many years operated garden and landscape centers. Eventually, he found his way into real estate and has spent the past twenty years as a Wisconsin real estate broker. He now lives in Northeastern Wisconsin with his wife and teenage son. He has always enjoyed writing horror, but only recently began submitting his short stories and novelettes for publication. His first novel has been accepted for publication and is due out in early 2020.