The Secret Santee

(Moreland Roundhouse, by Millie Martin)

Ghosts walk and ducks fly where a great but little-known river seeks the sea.

[by Robert Pinckney]

Clear sky and the wind though my parka like wind through screen wire. On my back in the bottom of the boat, out of the wind. Big shoebox of a boat, 22 feet, 115 yammer-hammer, but the aluminum hull is as cold as the river, just a few degrees above freezing. Wavelets rattle against the hull, drumming, drumming against my spine like the fi ngers of the Death Angel.

Dark of the moon. Crystalline dry ice stars so close you could pluck them from the sky, so bright they cast shadows. Scorpio clutching Venus between his claws, fading in the first flush of dawn. Love and death.

The Mud Marshall beside me, Santee Slim at the wheel, squinting into the gloom. Hang on, Mud Marshall. Be careful, Santee Slim. Run us up on a cypress floater, and we all die.

“Never seen a river run backwards? Come here.”

The Mud Marshall is retired DNR Enforcement. Another boat catches us, whines past at full throttle. More duck hunters, no lights: fools. Fools don’t last long out here. Mud Marshall squirms, itchy to write a ticket, but he can’t, not anymore.

Down the North Santee, through the Intracoastal Canal where the markers flash red, green, and faithful, then up the South Channel. My shotgun is cased and lashed to a life jacket. Fox Sterlingworth, 30-inch barrels, full and fuller, circa 1936. I want my boy to have it.

Brain goes first. You can screw in your chokes, and unlike a woman, you can unscrew them again. You can back-bore, but don’t even get me started on that. You can lengthen forcing cones, you can have your gun blessed by Pope Pious the Umpteenth, or have a laying on of hands by the Great Dr. Buzzard, famous voodoo priest, but you will never get a gun that shoots like this Sterlingworth. Production gun, nothing special. Accidental perfection. From Argentina to Zambia, it has killed cleanly and consistently at 60 yards if I did my part. I would tell you it has killed at 90, but you wouldn’t believe it. But 60 or 90, I try.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Right between the shoulder blades, that’s where cold will kill you. Happened once before, in Minnesota, coming up from a slough in the trough of a gumbo mud-plowing, freezing rain pelting sideways. Limit of mallards and Canada geese. ViseGrip on the end of every fi nger and toe, breath freezing on my mustache. Okay till I walked that half mile to the truck, back to the wind, and the weather caught me between the blades. Wet spot, no bigger than a pie plate, but it was big enough to suck the life right out of me.

I slipped, I stumbled, I fell, I fumbled the keys and I reached the ignition just in time. Had I dropped them, even in full view, I would have fallen facedown in the mud, never to rise again.

Slim backs off the throttle and we have arrived somewhere, too dark to tell just where. Thank God anyway. I roll onto my belly and struggle to my knees, cold bones grating cold bones like rocks rattling around the bottom of a galvanized 10-quart pail. We nose up a canal, motor churning, complaining, chopping bottom, kicking mud. The Santee is fresh water, but still subject to tides twice daily. The river rises, even flows backwards with the moon. Never seen a river run backwards? Come here. An hour before dawn, an hour into the ebb, we need to get in, unload, and get the boat back to the main channel before the tide leaves us stranded till sunset.

Two hundred fifty-odd years ago, the rice barons figured they could tame this country, regulate water in the wild marshes with a series of locks called “trunks,” because the first were made from hollow cypress logs. One hundred thousand acres of this delta were cultivated, and rice from these fields fed the world: Carolina Gold, they called it. Dry down the fields for cultivation, work the mud with mules, plant, then flood and let the rice grow in a foot of water. Dry them down again for the harvest. Slave labor, then free labor, but this pungo mud wouldn’t support the first tractors, gargantuan steam and diesel steel-wheeled behemoths in those days. So production shifted to Louisiana and Texas, and now the Santee is all about ducks.

Slim trims the motor till the exhaust blubbers. A narrow passage. Canes scrape the sides of the boat, and one peels the hat from my head. It lands in the bilge. Good thing. Despite the cold, my hair is wet with the bitter sweat of fear.

A VICIOUS HURRICANE SWEPT OVER THE SANTEE in September 1822, just as the hands were making ready for harvest. There was no warning and nowhere to run, the nearest high ground 10 miles distant. TheCharleston Courier related the sad tale. “Devastation beyond conception . . . whole plantations swept away . . . fifty Negroes have been lost by drowning or crushed by the falling of houses . . . the overseer being the only one saved in his family. He was picked up in the marsh. Miss Sarah Bochet was likewise lost; her body was discovered the next morning on the beach.”

One hundred twenty-seven persons, black and white. Rice mills, barns, bridges, the entire crop lost. The following year—1823—planters began building brick storm towers on whatever scant high ground was available. The pungo wouldn’t support much weight, so an extensive crib of cypress timbers came first. The towers were local brick, 30 feet in diameter, heavily braced, with a floor a dozen feet off the ground, massive doors and windows secured by hasps and hinges hand-forged by enslaved blacksmiths. An open hearth provided heat if needed, and there was a smoke hole in the center of the conical roof, much like a tepee. Initially, there were perhaps a half dozen of these iconic structures, standing like abbreviated lighthouses above the trackless waving cane. After the collapse of the rice culture, most were torn down and the bricks pilfered for tenant farmers’ shanty chimneys. Another fell into an eroding creek, and now only one remains. And it serves as base camp for our hunt today.

No trees for miles, excepting the deadly floaters. No firewood, either. Slim has two propane stoves hissing while a generator labors over lights and a coffeemaker. The yard all around has been rooted up by wild hogs. Darwin run amok, a wild crapshoot of genetics. The combination of Russian stock turned loose by Yankee sportsmen and local rooters run wild from plantations, these hogs will eat you alive if they get you down, leaving nothing but backbone, rib cage, and a fluttering of tattered clothes. Keep your eyes peeled and always a gun at the ready. As number-four shot will effect more squalling outrage than deterrence, you take your last shot first: stick your barrel right up a charging boar’s nose. Though the sign is very fresh, no hogs show themselves this morning. A good thing.