The boys rode through Memphis and took their pictures in front of the pink Cadillac at Graceland. Then they followed Hwy 61 through town and over an enormous bridge. The bridge was the largest they had ever seen and it left the boys awed at the Memphis skyline. Buddha snapped out a few shots as they biked over the superstructure. He saw buildings growing like mirrored ziggurats, vying for extra reach to touch the clouds. The massive forest of skyscrapers grew out of a soil of poverty and tenements, the lifeblood of the city, forcing its reincarnation skyward.
When the boys crossed over the bridge they were officially in Arkansas. Unfortunately for the boys, along with Arkansas came a man in a heavily starched uniform, round Smokey-the-Bear hat, and highly mirror-shined polished shoes; what many people feel is one of the most obstinate of uncongenial creatures known to man: an Arkansas State Trooper.
“You boys are going to have to go back across the bridge. There’s no pedestrian traffic on the Interstate.”
This was a problem. See, 61 stopped on one side of the bridge in Memphis, then after 4 miles straight down the interstate, west of Memphis, Arkansas, it started up again. Bike or pedestrian traffic was prohibited on the Interstate, a point which the State Trooper was less than likely to budge on. They had come to an impasse. There was no going forward and their adventure was just beginning, so there was definitely no going back.
On both sides of the bridge there were freshly plowed fields that went in their direction toward what looked like an ominous stand of trees. A dirt road wound through the field to disappear into the woods.
“Sir, what about that dirt road? Can we take that?” George asked.
“Son, my job is to enforce the laws of the fine State of Arkansas. The people of Arkansas say you can’t ride bikes next to the Interstate. The laws of Arkansas do not have a mandate concerning rural roads and bicycles.”
The boys smiled at each other. George declared, “Dirt road it is!”
The State Trooper was a rigid man who obviously took a tremendous amount of pride in his job, but he was also a father and that side of him caused his posture to soften and his icy demeanor to thaw.
“Look, you boys seen honest enough and I have son about your age… That road might go in your direction, but I know that there is no road across Murder Creek. You can’t tell from up here, but that’s two miles of the meanest, nastiest, swamp you’d ever wanna see. If you did somehow tote those bikes through the most treacherous swamp in Arkansas, you’d never get past the gators or the water moccasins. Hell, people have gone missing in Murder Creek all my life. I know of at least three.”
George nervously teetered from one foot to the other, rocking back and forth on his bike as if the rhythm would help him solve the quandary. He looked to the other boys for a consensus but they just stared back at him, waiting for his answer. They were all still riding the high of their harrowing escape from Mississippi and felt invincible.“And we can’t ride on the Interstate?”
“Sorry, Son.”
“Well… Murder Creek it is.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” The Officer smoothed a non-existent wrinkle and with very little ceremony, bid them goodbye.
The three on BMX bikes had an easier time than Miguel riding Maggy, but Spider didn’t complain. The road was good until it entered the woods and then it slowly began to fade away. The oaks and scattered pines yielded to poplar and cypress trees and the land changed from terra firma to something like jello pudding decorated with venus flytraps and succulent pitcher plants. Eventually, the pudding transmogrified into black, foul-smelling, standing water. The possibility of turning back wasn’t an option, so they lifted the bikes to their shoulders and trudged on.
“You wanna swap bikes for a bit?” George asked Spider.
“When I can’t carry my own bike, I’ll have a tag on my toe.” Spider retorted.
An hour later they were creeping through a thick black sludge that came up to their waists with another foot of putrid-smelling grimy water sitting on top. They had placed their backpacks on top of the bikes and carried both over their heads. Every twenty or thirty minutes the exhausted adventurers would wade up to an old stump and rest their bike frames on it to catch their breath. They saw an occasional serpent zagging across the murky mud of Murder Creek, but no sign of alligators. Occasionally something would slither through the bottom layer and rub against their legs. Every time this happened, Buddha would scream like a cheerleader in a Wes Craven movie and propel himself ahead a few feet. This gave the boys no end of amusement.
The situation had soon become dire as the water level rose to Spider’s neck. The sun had not gone down, but it had traveled far enough across the sky to cast long creeping shadows through the morose marsh of Murder Creek.
It began to feel hopeless when they slushed almost right by a boy sitting on a stump with a fishing pole. The boy was probably around ten, had a sort of neon white-blond hair that people called toe-headed. He was so still they didn’t even see him only a few feet away. He startled them when he spoke, “Y’all come from the swamp?”
Buddha screamed, “Aaaaaaahh!” then he discerned the boy out of the scenery. “You scared the heck out of me!”
They all laughed. George answered, “No, we came from New Orleans.”
“Is that what’s on the other side of the swamp?”
“No, that’s Memphis.”
“Nuh-uh! Memphis is that way!” The boy pointed behind him.
“Memphis, Tennessee?” Buddha asked.
“No, Memphis, Arkansas.” The boy giggled.
“There is also a Memphis, Egypt,” Tex added.
The boys pointed in the other direction and said, “Lemme guess, it’s on that side of the swamp.” The four-foot fisherman then pulled a stringer of fish from the murky water that were so big, he could hardly carry them. He turned and ran across stumps in such a way that it looked like he was walking on the water. He ran towards a skinny house built on pontoons that sat half on solid ground and half on the stagnant lagoon. The house was covered with algae and vines, the camouflage so complete they could have ran into it without recognizing it as a structure.
The boy yelled, “Paw! Paw! People’s coming out the swamp. Hurry, come see. They’s from Egypt!”
Buddha yelled, “New Orleans!”
The old man pushed a green aluminum skiff into the water and the boy dragged it to the heroes so they could pile their bikes into it before they waded ashore. They walked up an earthen boat ramp and were covered with the nastiest, filthiest muck they had ever seen.
Buddha still had enough manners to say, “We appreciate it, Sir.”
“Well, we ain’t out of kindness, yet. That boy there’s got a mess of fish. If y’all know how to scale ‘em, I know how to cook ‘em.”
“You don’t have to go to all that trouble, Sir,” George said, despite the rumbling of his empty stomach.
“I know I don’t have to. That’s what makes it kindness. Plus, it ain’t every day the Egyptians part Murder Creek. Y’all just throw those muddy clothes in the washing machine on the back porch.”
So the boys lined up like a firing squad and hosed each other off.
“Oh my God, get it off me!” Buddha yelped, grasping at the long slimy leech hanging onto his chest.
“Wait, don’t pull it. You’ll get infected.” The little boy said. He heated up a stick with a lighter, then held it to the leech until it fell away.
“Oh man, that was gross,” Buddha said, relieved.
“You have three more on your back,” Spider told him. Buddha looked sick but dutifully turned his back to the boy. The boys laughed.