“To love and to be loved is the greatest happiness in existence.”
The night, warm, muggy, and breezeless, did little to aid me in securing a night’s rest. The discomfort and uneasiness I experienced from the vicious, ripping, tearing, crippling mortar blast sending white hot shards of sharp metal into my head, left leg and arm, and abdomen a few short years ago, wasn’t relieved by aspirin, my drug of choice, so I rose from my bed, limped out to the cabin’s three-season porch, and ensconced myself in the familiar wooden rocking chair I often used when confronted with the residues of my painful injuries. Sitting there, teetering back and forth in a familiar rhythm, I allowed my thoughts to become one with the night sounds emanating from the backwaters and timbered bottomlands of the mighty river coursing it’s flow south out beyond my view from the small knoll my cabin and farm occupied. Surrendering to that natural rhythm of life removed those thoughts of misgivings and sadness from my mind and along with them the relative discomfort of pain, allowing the aspirin to work its magic.
Dawn was still a couple of hours away, but the night was failing rapidly; the half-light of a false dawn was not yet upon me, although not distant in time before appearing. July days and nights can be miserable sometimes along the Great River in this part of the country and tonight was one of those, when the usual breezes from the water offering enough relief to ease my existence were naught. If the day yet to dawn was similar to the one before, the air would be still and humidity heavy, weighting clothing sodden with body sweat, wicking sustenance from the very depths of my physical self. Water and little physical exertion would be the order of the day. My plans to run some lines on the main river for catfish would have to wait.
It wasn’t really the heat or the lack of breezes or the slight discomfort that caused my restlessness and anxiety, it was the memories of a day more than ten years before which weighted me down, depressing me, causing me to relive those happy and yet, painful times. Shaking my head to rid myself of those thoughts, I turned my attention to my small flock of chickens and two young shoats I was feeding for slaughter. I’d have to keep them well watered today and sheltered from the heat of the sun in order to protect their health and ensure their survival.
I must’ve dozed, since the first rays of the morning sun were peeking through the timber and lightening the eastern sky, bringing the morning birds to life and silencing the deep-throated croaking of the bull frogs in the marshy shallows of the backwater slough known by the name of “John’s Lake,” in front of the cabin. The tweeting, twittering, chirping sounds were now punctuated by the raucous crowing of the rooster in the chicken yard announcing morning was upon us and the hens’ best make ready for him. Heat didn’t seem to bother the horny bastard!
Coffee would taste good, I thought, and meandered back into the kitchen to brew a pot. The water jug along the sink was about empty, so I pumped it full with the hand pump drawing water from the sand point well sunk beneath the cabin. The well was one of two servicing the property; the one in the kitchen and the larger deeper well about twenty yards of so from the house where water was drawn up to the surface with a larger, standard long handled pump. There are some disadvantages to living on Gif’s Island, but the advantages, such as the privacy it affords me, more than compensate for them. One hundred pound bottle gas (propane) tanks brought from the mainland provided the fuel for my kitchen range, refrigerator, and freezer, while heat in the winter was provided by a wood burning stove supplemented by a kerosene (fuel oil) stove. I kept a two hundred gallon tank of fuel oil topped off for that and seldom had to use it. Lights were gas lanterns and oil lamps. I know I should modernize the cabin with electricity, but my needs were few and my wants fewer since I lived alone. The only visitor I ever had was a younger second cousin who boated over from the mainland and he didn’t require much. I hadn’t changed much in the place since I occupied it a few short years before, preferring to keep it as such to remind me of better times and experiences.
I returned to the porch, coffee in hand, along with a cinnamon roll I’d baked the day before, and settled back in my rocking chair to enjoy the roll and the coffee. If the weather broke in another day or two, I’d have to make a run in the boat across the slough to the mainland and collect my mail, visit my Mom, and do some shopping; or if the mood hit me, today. Keeping in contact with the rest of society was not my priority, but remaining close with my family was. There were a few catfish in the live box near the dock so I could dress a couple of them and take them in to Mom. She loved fresh fish and the chance to cook for someone other than herself. If my disability check was in the mail I’d go to the bank, cash it, put some in savings, pick up some groceries for myself and Mom, and stash what’s left.
Mom was widowed while pregnant with me when the father I never knew was killed by a sniper’s bullet in some little insignificant village somewhere in Vietnam. I was named after him, John Thomas Gifford, Jr. and welcomed into the extended family of my mother and his. My father had an older brother and older sister; Momma, an older sister. When I was growing up, most of my cousins lived in the area as well as my grandparents on both sides of the family. Grandfather Gifford’s brother, John (after who Daddy and I were named) Samuel Gifford was the original owner of the house and small eighty acre farm I inherited from him and was more of a father to me than anyone else. Although eccentric, living alone on the island, known as Gifford’s Island (Gif’s Island for short), hunting, fishing, trapping, and providing for himself, he seldom missed the opportunity to visit with Mom and me, bringing us fresh fish, wild game, and groceries, plus making special efforts to take me to ball games and accompany him on his fishing and hunting trips. I remember how proud he was when I graduated from high school, something he’d not done.
Sighing, finishing my roll and coffee, I leaned back in the chair watching the sun burn off the misting light fog which forms over the cooler water on hot days and allowed my mind to slip back, remembering this day was no different than the day more than ten years before when Cameron Saint-Denis and I floated down the big river jugging for catfish. Cameron and his family, Mom, Dad, and four younger siblings, moved into the house across the street from us when we were both in seventh grade. Our part of town wasn’t the most prosperous, mostly populated by hard-working, but low salaried families. Cameron’s daddy was hired as a custodian at the same elementary school where Momma worked as a secretary, a job she began when I started school. The pay wasn’t great, but steady, and the benefits, including health insurance, were good. They struggled, but made do as did Momma and I, although we did have relatives such as Uncle John for some help and a social security payment made to Momma for me.
When Cameron and I became friends, Uncle John included him in all of our activities. It was one of those weekends, during our ninth grade year of high school, Cameron and I became more than just friends, we became lovers, knowing what each of us desired and loved in each other. If Uncle John ever suspected or overheard our gasps of pleasure when I entered Cameron for the first time, taking both of our virginities, setting us on a path of life neither of us ever wished to alter, he never commented or treated us any differently. As time went on, we became comfortable together in Uncle John’s home on the Island. It was the one place we could be without fear of being bullied, harassed, and called “queer” or “homo” or “shit lifter” and all those other degrading insults from red-necked assholes rocketing from their homophobic world!
The river or the Island has changed little over the ensuing years, I mused, sitting on the porch, enjoying the increasing daylight. Oh, I’ve made some changes and improvements to the cabin or house as I sometimes refer to it, but the river still provides sustenance for me and a living for others who still fish it commercially. It was really no different now than that summer day Cameron and I, after a delightful night of fucking each other to pleasure more than once, left the cabin before dawn to float the river and jug for catfish, hoping to make some bucks with the sale of the fish and add to our savings for school in the fall.
The lazy, yet powerful, current of the Mississippi River carried the two of us, lithe framed, bronzed skin from constant exposure to summer sun, afloat in my uncle’s flat boat, downstream. The green, leafy maple, oak, and willow trees lining the shores were casting increasingly shorter shadows as the early morning daybreak transformed into full daylight, portending a hot, muggy day. Cameron, resting lazily between my legs, head on my shoulder, bare back contacting the bare skin of my chest, eyes closed, sighed contentedly as I slid my right hand down the front of his loose jeans and tenderly massaged his balls while alternately jacking his stiff cock.
I watched the two dozen or so glass gallon jugs floating steadily ahead of us as the river carried our flat boat and the jugs downstream. The steady flow of the river current would propel us and the jugs slowly over the now submerged rock wing dams jutting out at a downstream angle. The wing dams, with the tops now blasted off, were once used, in years past long before our births, to channel the river’s flow, scouring a channel for passage of cargo boats before the construction of the concrete locks and dams presently used to maintain a nine foot navigational channel. The remnants of the wing dams now served as shelter for resting and hungry fish, making a meal of any food sources that whirled over and around it.
Over and around the dams, where the flowing current carried food and oxygenated water to resting or waiting fish, we hoped to hook hungry catfish on sharp, barbed treble hooks baited with rotten clam meat. Each jug was equipped with about seven feet of heavy, black nylon fishing line tied to the neck of the jug. On the end of each line was a weight to hold the bait beneath the surface and a treble hook draped and covered with the rotting clam. Personally, I thought shit smelled better, but to catfish, it was a delectable meal. The jug acted as a float carrying the baited line and also as a signal when a fish was foolish enough to take a bite of clam, becoming impaled on the sharp hook. As the fish struggled to break free and relieve the pain, the jug would bob up and down and began moving, powered by the struggling fish, signaling the fisherman of a catch.
The race would begin at that point. I’d hit the starter button on the twenty-five horsepower outboard motor attached to the stern, give it full throttle and steer toward the moving, gyrating glass jug. Slowing down when encountering the jug, Cameron would grab it and haul jug and fish, hopefully, aboard. Detached from the hook, the flopping, grunting catfish would be tossed into one of two tubs of water in the boat or pitched over the side of the boat back into the water if it were too small or if not a catfish as we anticipated.
As the increasing heat from the morning sun burned off the wispy fog lingering over the river, the fish became less inclined to bite. Our wash tubs contained about thirty channel and flathead catfish, all in excess of the eighteen inch size limit the market required. Although the fish were less active, I wasn’t, stroking Cameron faster and faster until he signaled he was about to cum. I quickly leaned forward as he unzipped his fly, poked his throbbing cock out and, taking him in my mouth, sucked until he unloaded his sweet, creamy nectar into it. I suckled until he softened, kissed him gently, and we both rose from the seat to empty our bladders over the side, arching our streams into the river, trying to piss farther than the other. We laughed, called it a draw, and decided to bring the fishing to a halt for the day.
“Let’s pick up the jugs,” I suggested and Cameron headed toward the bow of the boat where he could lean forward and retrieve each of our jugs as I motored near them. He carefully picked up each jug, wrapped the fishing cord around it, cleaned off the hook, and stacked the jug in the bottom of the boat while I headed for the next one. We retrieved them all, save one; it was nowhere to be seen.
“Cameron,” I shouted over the noise of the motor, “take a look along the bank of the Island. It may’ve floated over there or been pulled by a fish and we didn’t notice it.”
He stood in the bow, shielded his eyes with his hand, and scanned the banks of Gif’s Island seeking our wayward jug. A glint of sunlight flicking off and on like a flashlight, revealed the location of the jug, betrayed by the sun bouncing rays off of the jugs wet, glassy surface. He pointed toward the errant glass, smiled, and, after giving him the “thumbs up” that I saw it also, headed the boat in that direction. The jug was just upstream from the opening to the slough leading to Uncle John’s cabin. I had hopes of a quick retrieve and another fat catfish to add to our catch. With the sun growing even hotter, the fish we had needed to be cleaned and marketed soon. Nearing the large snag where the jug was lodged, I swung the boat in a gentle arc, pointing the bow upstream, allowing the boat to slowly ease upstream to make contact with the snag.
Cameron leaned over the bow, grasped the jug, and pulled up toward and into the boat. Lifting on it, the line didn’t give very much, as though held tightly by some underwater anchor. He pulled again, but the line remained taut, the unseen anchor refusing to release its grasp.
“Pull up to the snag a bit more,” he shouted at me, “and I’ll tie the boat to the snag, then I can use both hands and really reef on it.”
I ran the boat in closer, held it steady while Cameron tied us up to the snag, and killed the motor. The flat boat bobbed lazily in the current while he tried, using both hands, to free the fish line. One hard pull and he felt the line come free, but heavy, difficult to pull up.
“It’s loose, J.T., but I’m pulling part of the tree with it.”
“Be damned careful, Cam,” I admonished, “don’t break the line or we’ll lose the fish and a couple of bucks it’ll bring in the process.”
Cameron nodded his understanding to me. The money we made jugging, running trot lines, and box traps, along with part-time lawn care, and other odd jobs was going to be used to pay tuition at the community college in the fall. It’d be the only way either of us could attend and make a better life for ourselves and leave, so we could be together. Cameron’s parents struggled to make ends meet for their family and going on to school after high school would be a plus for him, but a cost he’d have to bear himself. Living at home during the first two years by attending the community college would lessen the burden. Everything he earned this summer and during the college term would go for his expenses. Cameron and I often brought home under-sized fish for his family and for me and Momma. It was illegal, but necessary.
“Just don’t get your undies in a bunch he replied with a grin, “I’ll be careful,” and reefed back on the line, freeing it, allowing him to begin retrieving the line and fish attached. Peering over the side of the boat as the end of the line rose steadily to the surface, his eyes widened in astonishment, then horror, as a slowly undulating, bloated cloth enclosed object surfaced, emitting a gaseous, burping noise.
“Oh, my God, John Thomas, it’s a fucking dead body and it stinks!” he wailed.
The words from his mouth were followed rapidly by his breakfast as he leaned over the gunwales of the boat, vomiting, gagging at the repulsive sight bobbing in the muddy river waters. Taking a deep breath after his initial hurling, his stomach reacted again as the putrid smell of decaying flesh and stomach gases reached up to him, encircling his body, invading his overtaxed senses.
I quickly scrambled to the bow, reaching forward to bring Cameron into my arms, gently cradling his head on my shoulder and, using my discarded t-shirt, wiped the vestiges of his sickness from his lips and face. Rocking him gently, smoothing his dark, black hair, I tried my very best to comfort him while fighting to keep my own churning stomach in check. I kissed his softly on the forehead, saying quietly, “Go back and handle the motor. I’ll take care of this. It’s probably not a person, just a big, dead carp or dog or something.” Although I knew, at first glance, it was none of those; I had to get Cameron away from the sight and settled down thinking about something else.
He did as I asked, scrambling over the catfish filled tubs to the stern of the boat and sat down. Cameron slipped on his t-shirt, pulled the bottom of it up over his mouth and nose, in an attempt to filter out some of the fetid odor permeating the hot, morning air. I leaned over the gunwale, slowly pulling and retrieving the fishing line, bringing the corpse of what appeared to be a male, face macabre, swollen, grimacing with bloated arms, legs, and body straining at the water soaked and mud-stained clothing enclosing them.
“It’s really a body, isn’t it, J.T.?” questioned Cameron anxiously hoping it wasn’t what he knew it to be.
“Yeah, it sure as hell is and by the way it’s all swoll up and stinky, it’s been in the water awhile.”
“What are we going to do with ……it?” choked Cameron, fighting the rising gorge in his throat. “Shouldn’t we call the sheriff or something?”
I shouldn’t have snapped at him, but I did, suffering the same urges he did and revulsion, disgust with myself for doing so. “Well, we sure as hell can’t take him with us and I don’t think there’s a telephone booth on the Island or in the middle of the river.”
Words once said cannot be taken back and Cameron was a compassionate, caring person, hurt easily, but still strong and I loved him with all of my heart. He’d forgive me for my brusqueness, but I still turned and said, “I’m sorry, I guess I’m just a little uptight.”
No matter how bad a day I had, how frustrating life might be, or lonely I might feel, I always found refuge and solace in Cameron’s arms. For that reason and more, I was his protector, his knight errant, the one who’d let no harm befall him, sacrificing my own safety for his.
“Maybe one of the cabins along Johnson’s Slough would have a phone or a fisherman might have a cell phone,” Cameron offered.
“I doubt it; most don’t have electricity since they’re mostly hunting and fishing cabins for weekenders. We’ll have to make a call to the Sheriff from Hennessey’s Fish Market when we sell our catch. Won’t make much difference either way, dead is dead.”
I rummaged around in the toolbox in the bow of the boat, located a small length of rope, reached over the side of the boat, and trying not to toss my cookies in the process, tied one end to the belt of the dead guy and the other end to the snag, muttering, “There, that’ll keep him from drifting while we’re gone.” I turned to Cam, continuing louder, “You run the motor while I clean fish. No sense wasting a good morning’s catch. It’s hard to say how soon the Sheriff will show up and it’s a lot easier carrying cash in our pockets instead of dead fish in a tub.”
Cameron ran the boat down around the Island and up Johnson’s Slough while I market dressed the catfish. It went quite fast; a couple of cuts with my knife, a quick jerk with the skinning pliers to peel the hide off, and a snap of the head to detach it, pulling the guts with it, and the cleaned fish went back into the tub. As I worked, I looked up, seeing the anguished expression on Cam’s face, so I hollered back, “Hey, what’s up!”
“Was it anyone we know?”
“Nah, I don’t think so. He was pretty bloated and the turtles and fish had nibbled off bits and pieces of his face, so I wouldn’t have been able to recognize him if I wanted to.”
Cameron responded by leaning back over the stern of the boat and vomiting into the wake caused by the motor. I was going to make some smart-ass comment, but Cameron, looked up at me, smiled weakly while wiping his mouth with his t-shirt, and continued piloting the flat-boat toward Hennessey’s. A half hour’s journey and we tied the boat up at Hennessey’s dock and we hauled the dressed catfish up to the market.
Quietly, speaking to Cameron, “You’re better at dickering than I am, so you sell the fish while I call the Sheriff.”
Hennessey looked the catch over while he and Cameron began negotiating a price. Hennessey knew damned well we weren’t licensed commercial fisherman, so he’d set the price a little lower than what he’d give the guys that were licensed who sold to him, but he was fair with us. It was a nice catch that day and the price was right, adding more to our college fund!
I met Cameron at the boat, telling him, “The lady at the County Sherriff’s office said to wait here and tell them exactly where the body’s located. She said it could be a half-hour or more since they had to launch the rescue boat and contact the County Coroner to examine the body. I told her we were out for a boat ride so we won’t get our asses fined for fishing without a license and jugging besides.”
Cameron looked up at me asking, “Aren’t you upset about finding the dead guy at all? He’s somebody’s dad or brother, or husband or something. You act as though you don’t care, J.T.!”
“I care, Cam, but there’s nothing I can do about it! I just don’t get all mushy, teary-eyed, and pukie about it like you do. Honestly, there are times I wonder why I put up with you,” and smiled at him.
Cameron looked around cautiously to see if we were alone, smiled up at me, leaned his head against my chest as I wrapped my arms around him, and murmured, “Because, John Thomas Gifford, I’m your best friend and you love me!”
“You know I do; now why don’t I take Uncle John’s boat back to the cabin, get our smaller flat boat and meet you and the Sheriff at the body? That way, I can ditch the fishing gear and the law won’t be the wiser. Tell the cops I went ahead to make certain the body didn’t drift away.”
I gave him a quick kiss, climbed in the boat, and headed toward the Island and Uncle John’s cabin. I was waiting for him and the Sheriff’s boat near the snag when they motored up the river. Cameron crawled into our boat and we tied off some distance away and watched as a deputy and the coroner slid the body into a black rubber bag, zipped it up, gave us a wave of their hands, powered up their motor, and left. Nothing was said between us as I ran the boat back to the dock near our houses on the main land.
Thank you for reading “Gif’s Island” – Chapter One - “To love and to be loved is the greatest happiness in existence” – (Sydney Smith)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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