The rabbit must be panicking in the snare, thrashing against the cattails and shrieking like a little demon crawled out of hell. It’s a wonder he’s getting to it before any predators have. He’d lost a squirrel that way last week, found one of his snares with the wire loop twisted apart and scraps of bloodied fur smeared into the mud. Sloppy. He’ll have to remember to check them more often.
“C’mon Uncle Joe, it’s that way.” Lucas tramps ahead of him, gangly and drowning in his sweatshirt. Kid’s shot up an extra couple inches since Joe last saw him, but it’s all height and no mass so far. His boots are making great big wet splashes in the muck and he’s getting caught on branches every other step.
“Slow down, boy.” Lucas is a contrary little shit who pushes faster at that, stomping his feet and stumbling over a rock.
“Why? I can hear it, it’s just - aw, fuck.” He staggers to a stop all of a sudden, kicking up more mud around him. His skinny shoulders tense up and his head whips around to look at Joe, pleading and scared and eager.
Over his shoulder Joe sees it - alligator, half-out of the brackish water. Can’t be more than six feet away from Lucas. It’s a big, fat, mean old beast, swollen and gleaming, jaw lifted in a terrible smile. The bulging underside of its chin pulses as it breathes heavily. He almost imagines it’s salivating.
“Hold there.” Lucas nods, eyes fixed again on the gator.
“Is it - shit, did it see us? They can’t see for shit, right?” There’s an edge of panic in his voice but he’s doing a good job keeping himself calm. That’s good - important, in the bayou. Can’t get too worked up over animals just being animals. Gator’s gotta eat same as a man, and if a man happens to get himself ate, the gator probably deserved it more.
Lucas ain’t a man yet, though. Deserves a second chance here and there while he grows - and Jack’d try and kill him if anything happened to his boy. Couldn’t take him, of course, never could, but he’d try, and Joe’d feel bad about beating him into the muck, and maybe he’s fond of the kid besides. Lucas doesn’t have the steady head his sister’s got, but he’s family either way.
He reaches down in the bottom of his bag - not his preferred method of dealing with trouble, too likely to just bring more down on his head, but it’ll do here. The makeshift bomb is heavy and cold, shrapnel and powder wedged into a rusting old soup can, and he juggles it to his other hand as he steps around to the side. The gator’s eyes slide his way for a second, before they slide back to Lucas.
“It ain’t blind. With you makin’ all that noise, it heard you coming a mile off. It knows where you are. Now hold.”
The gator is focused entirely on Lucas now, oozing forward on its great wide belly and hissing. From this angle he can see Lucas’s face past the edge of his hood. He’s scared and...excited, like his eyes can’t get enough of the thing in front of him. It pauses a second, jaw working like it’s tasting them on the air, and then explodes into motion.
Lucas yells and flings himself back onto his ass, and Joe goes forward, and the bomb lodges right in the gator’s grasping throat. It has a half-second to gag on it, body roiling in confusion and rage, before it detonates and the gator’s just a lump of meat with a hole through its head, dropping heavily into the mud.
“Fuck! Holy fuck, Uncle Joe, you gotta show me how you made that.” Lucas scrambles up to standing. His skinny legs are shaking and he’s half dangling from the tree branch he used to haul himself up. Joe takes a second to let the ringing fade from his ears and watch the gator, make sure it’s really dead, but tapping its jaw with the toe of his boot reveals the head’s nearly severed.
“Pretty sure your daddy’d have my head on a pike if he found out I was teachin’ you that stuff,” he says.
“I won’t tell him! I can keep a secret, I swear.” True enough - Jack hasn’t come to his shack waving a gun for putting his boy in danger yet, so Lucas really has kept these occasional excursions quiet. Joe shifts his bag further up his back and glances around the stretch of bank. Big tree with the sideways bend about ten paces up, and diagonally, the rock that Jack fell off and broke his nose on when he was ten. He’ll have to circle back here and collect the gator later, no sense in letting good food go to waste.
“You got your answer, boy, now live with it. Come on.” He turns back in the direction of the snares they’re here to empty and a couple seconds later Lucas follows after him, muddy boots sliding and trampling on the underbrush.
“Where’d the rabbit go? I don’t hear it no more.” Shit, kid’s right. The whole swamp is quieter now that they’ve made themselves known. Dangerous position to be in, posturing like they’re bigger and badder than anything else in the muck.
“Shh.” Lucas manages to shut up for almost half a minute before he busts out a loud groan and reminds Joe why he doesn’t have kids of his own. Jack’s hellions are enough for him. Maybe too much at times.
“You already blew up a gator, anything out here already knows we’re here. What’re you doing?”
“That’s the damn problem. I’m gathering grubs, s’good eatin’.” He drops the rock he was lifting back down and holds his palm out for a second so Lucas can see the bloated, white things writhing over his fingers. He makes a disgusted face with no heat in it and then looks thoughtfully at the rock.
“Probably better than whatever we’re having for dinner tonight. Daddy can’t cook for shit.”
“Your mama’s leg still broken?” He’d gotten the story in bits and pieces the last time he saw Zoe, a few weeks previous. She’d been boiling with rage over it. Going through a hormonal period or something, or just ‘fraid for her mama. Apparently the break was bad enough to lay Marguerite up on the couch looped up on painkillers for days, and under strict orders to keep her weight off as much as possible until it was healed up all the way.
“Yeah, guess the doctor said it’d be another week before she can stand on it again. Man, who woulda guessed the floorboard would just go out under her like that?” From what Zoe’d said, she had some guesses as to why the floorboard might’ve given out on Marguerite on her way to the laundry room, the day after Lucas caught an upbraiding for fighting with a boy at school. He considers Lucas for a second while the kid crouches down to retie his shoelace. Kids are always squabbling - probably nothing. Lord knows he’n Jack had torn up the old house between them plenty of times. A board snapped, that was all.
They move on for a minute in mostly quiet through the gathering gloom, the only sounds the ripple of the water and Lucas panting as he hurries to keep up. The clearing Joe sets his traps around is just up ahead, he knows even without the rabbit screaming anymore. He shifts aside a fallen cypress branch and steps into it.
The ground stake is still standing between two rotting, collapsing logs, and the wire loop is tightened from something catching and yanking on it, but it’s empty now, bobbing lazily in the evening heat. Joe crouches down beside it to inspect it. Doesn’t look like the snare was faulty, the wire still strong and firmly attached to the stake. But no rabbit, and nothing besides some scrambling marks in the mud to tell him whether it had slipped free on its own or been carted off by something bigger. He reflexively glances into the underbrush. Nothing moves there except by the wind, the low hum of crickets and the water. Shadows are starting to deepen, though.
“Aw, man, it’s gone? Where’d it go?” Lucas is stomping around the boundaries of the clearing like the rabbit’ll still be hunkered nearby and waiting to be found. Stupid. If it’s gone, it’s long gone. No animal’s gonna stick around someplace it knows to be a killing floor. Joe resets the snare and pushes himself up to standing, resolutely ignoring the way his knee creaks with the movement.
“Something else got to it, or it slipped the trap on its own. Either way, it’s gettin’ dark and your daddy’s gonna start wondering where you got off to,” he says. Lucas groans and kicks at a stump. The toe of his boot sinks in and he has to wrench it back out again with a yelp. “C’mon boy, time to head back home. I got plenty of meat from the other snares.”
“Fine, fine,” Lucas says, giving one last disappointed, longing look at the empty snare, nearly invisible now in the dusk, before turning back to follow Joe to his shack.
They make quick time back, skirting the bank where the dead gator still lies glossy-eyed, and Joe tosses his bag up inside. Doesn’t bother taking off his boots, there’s still enough light to head back out and drag in the gator once he gets Lucas heading home. The gift is sitting on his bench where he left it, wrapped in a scrap of fabric from a shirt he’d given up on patching and scrapped.
He steps back out of the shack. Lucas is standing near the path that’ll lead him home, squinting into the middle distance. It strikes Joe for a moment that the kid’s growing, fast, and he’s not quite sure into what. With his shaved head and his ratty sweatshirt he looks half-feral, even though Joe knows that Marguerite runs a pretty tight ship. Maybe it’s just something in his nature, the same way this swamp is in Joe’s.
“Here, boy.” He tosses the gift over and Lucas claws it open, a delighted grin splitting his face when the old pocket knife tumbles into his hand. “Belonged to your granddaddy. You’re a teenager now, figured that’s a good age to inherit it.” Joe watches him flip it open, run his thumb along the flat of the blade. “Happy birthday, Lucas.”
“Thanks, Uncle Joe.” The kid grins up at him, and there’s something hungry in his eyes.