Once upon a time there was an otter named Francis who lived at the edge of the Oskanobawaki swamp. Every morning he would slide out of his mud hole into the water and wash his face. Then he would play with his eighty-six cousins all through the swamp, until it was time for the gathering at the great tree.
If you could part the low hanging branches of the great tree, you would see the water so thick with dark heads you might think you could walk across them like dry land. But not one person every saw the otter gathering, where the otter elder would come out and give them wisdom.
“Play is worship,” he’d always say, and it was a he, although the next in line for his post was a female otter. “We must honor the fish and creatures we eat by dancing for their spirits. Fight only those who must be fought, never amongst each other. Live each day as if it were your last.”
The assembled otters would splash paddle in agreement, and the great gathering would break up. They only happened once a moon.
When Francis slid under the great branches he felt this gathering was different. The elder was agitated, and could hardly wait to begin.
“One of the furless ones is slaughtering our people,” said the elder. “He is sending us off to be coats. We need to act.”
The elder gave them all instructions.
That next morning Jeb and his brother Tucker, both furless ones, took their swamp boat out looking for otters. The city man was paying them two hundred a head, so both boys were making a bit of money for once. Jeb felt kind of bad about the otters, but Tucker told him to shut his fool mouth. Nobody cared what he had to say.
The swamp boat slowed down around otter alley, a stream area where they all had their mud holes. Like they had done before, Jeb dangled down a chunk of candy bar in the water, while Tucker readied his rifle. Jeb didn’t know if the otters liked candy bars, or if they were just curious. It didn’t really matter in either case, ‘cause they were soon dead. Jeb philosophically munched the rest of the candy bar while he flicked the chunk back and forth in the water.
“Where are they?” Tucker asked. Usually you could see otters playing in the distance, and it was just a matter of time before they all approached.
“Somebody’s come through here and taken ‘em all!” Tucker shouted. “I told you we should have come with a net!” He swung at Jeb’s head, and Jeb was a little too slow. Tucker’s fingers stung his ear.
Tucker was swearing up a blue streak as he tried to start the engine. “We gotta get to another alley before they’re all gone. And this time, we just keep shooting until I run outta bullets.”
Jeb nodded. He wished he had another candy bar. But the chunk wasn’t too badly soaked. He considered whether he could eat it, but decided Tucker would get even angrier.
Tucker kept heaving on the engine, but it wouldn’t take. He cussed and cussed. If swear words could start engines, then Tucker and Jeb would have ended up on the moon. But instead they just drifted a little. Finally Tucker got down into the water and fished around at the propeller. “What the..?” He pulled up handful after handful of swamp grass wrapped around the propeller. “The thing is tied in place with grass.” Tucker was hauling on the grass when he felt the first brush on his leg. “Jeb, there’s something in the water with me. It’s near my leg. Hand me the rifle really slow-like.”
As Jeb reached out the rifle, Tucker was hauled under the water. It wasn’t just that he sank, or that he disappeared. Jeb could see him thrashing under the water, and being hauled away from the boat at a very respectable speed. When Jeb lost sight of Tucker, he listened. But Tucker never came up for air.
Jeb considered his options. The most dang fool thing he could do would be to stand up in the boat and point the rifle at the water. Anything strong enough to pull Tucker like that was strong enough to tip the boat over and send him into the water. Once he was in the water, there wasn’t much chance he’d come out. So Jeb sat there, one hand on the rifle, the other one holding the side of the boat.
As Jeb looked out at the swamp, he saw someone watching him. Or something. An old otter, all white muzzled, was watching him. Jeb’s fingers itched, but he had just enough sense to think it through. Maybe that otter was the papy of his clan. And maybe the otter clan had figured out what he and Tucker had been doing. And maybe, just maybe, they’d worked together to foul up the boat and take Tucker off.
Jeb hadn’t ever been much of a thinker. But he figured maybe he could take out the papy, and the rest wouldn’t stick together. He shifted the rifle, and felt the whole boat surge. It was like the boat wasn’t really in the water anymore, but held up by something underneath it.
Despite himself, Jeb started trembling. “I give, I give.” He called out to the papy otter. Then he threw the rifle into the swamp and put his hands up. The papy otter’s head disappeared. A few minutes later, Jeb felt the boat drifting free. When he started the engine it started right up. Jeb broke several speed records getting out of there.
Every time some city slickers come down to the swamp thinking about fencing stolen otter fur, Jeb is the first thing they run into. He’ll talk them out of it sometimes, and sometimes he’ll just sell them his boat. Sell them his boat, because he doesn’t rent out boats that don’t come back. About a day or so after, he’ll get in his canoe and paddle out to where the boat is stuck fast with swamp grass. Only when Jeb gets in the boat it drifts free in a couple minutes. Then Jeb will dump buckets of the fish he’s brought into the water and the otters will have a party.
When Jeb dies he’s going to give any money he’s got to get a warden out patrolling the swamp. After all, those poor swamp creatures can’t be expected to defend themselves. Or can they?
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